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Ecocide a crime in Belgium

Belgium becomes first European country to recognise ecocide as international level crime
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Grote Markt in Antwerp by sunset

Belgium’s Federal Parliament has voted in favour of a new penal code for the country which, for the first time in Europe, includes recognition of the crime of ecocide at both the national and international levels.

Nationally the new crime of ecocide, aimed at preventing and punishing the most severe cases of environmental degradation – such as extensive oil spills – will apply to individuals in the highest positions of decision-making power and to corporations.

The punishment for individuals may include up to 20 years in prison, while corporations could face fines of up to 1.6 million euros.

A global conversation

Within Belgium’s federal monarchy, domestic environmental legislation is primarily the responsibility of the three regional governments of Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels.

The scope of this new law is limited to areas within the jurisdiction of the federal authority, including the North Sea and nuclear waste management.

The limited domestic scope of the new bill is not a reason to dismiss the significance of the development.

‘Last November, following months of relentless advocacy from a diverse coalition of political allies, the European Union reached an agreement to incorporate a new dedicated offence into its recently revised environmental crimes directive, targeting ‘cases comparable to ecocide’.

‘Now, all 27 member states are tasked with aligning their domestic penal codes with this updated directive, a process that will extend to Belgium’s three regions. We anticipate that this effort will significantly reduce any disparities between federal and regional environmental criminal laws. As Belgium holds the presidency of the European Union, this directive should encourage the regions to play their part in the area of their competence.

‘Belgium is now at the forefront of a truly global conversation around criminalising the most severe harms to nature and must continue to advocate for the recognition of ecocide at the International Criminal Court, alongside genocide.

‘In order to fully protect nature, it is necessary that those that would wilfully destroy vast swathes of the natural world, in turn causing untold human harm, should be criminalised. We will continue to campaign to eradicate ecocide from Belgium and the world.’

Director of Stop Ecocide Belgium

Ecocide as an international crime

Belgium has also become the first European country to recognise ecocide as an international crime, based on the consensus definition proposed in 2021 by the Independent Expert Panel (IEP) convened by the Stop Ecocide Foundation, in its penal code.

The country has already recognised genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression and is now adding a nature-centred element to its penal code by recognising a fifth crime under international law: ecocide.

‘After four years of fighting in Parliament and in civil society, our penal code is finally coming to the aid of the planet: the worst attacks against the environment are about to be criminalised. Our mobilisation is bearing fruit! Let us send a strong signal to the international community: the Belgian Parliament recognises a fifth ‘international crime’ after war crimes, crimes of aggression, crimes against humanity and genocide.’

Member of the Federal Parliament (Ecolo/Green Party)

Leadership from Belgium

There has been significant civil society support for the inclusion of ecocide in the updated penal code, with a Greenpeace-hosted petition garnering more than 43,000 signatures.

Greenpeace was one of a coalition of organisations operating in Belgium that came together on the issue, including Stop Ecocide International, Canopea, Rise for Climate, Climate Justice for Rosa, Fondation européen pour le droit du vivant, Kaya, Climate Coalition and the Grandparents for the Climate.
Samuel Cogolati, Member of the Federal Parliament representing the Ecolo (Green) Party, played a significant role in championing the inclusion of ecocide in the new penal code.

‘Belgium has demonstrated strong leadership today not only on a national level, but on behalf of all of us who are made more vulnerable and whose livelihoods are directly threatened when the most powerful in society make decisions that result in mass-scale environmental destruction.

‘There is real momentum growing around the ecocide law conversation at every level currently. We’ve seen a growing list of states take concrete steps towards establishing new domestic crimes of ecocide in the last year, including the Netherlands, Scotland, Mexico, Brazil, England, Italy and Spain.

‘With prominent voices like that of Belgium leading the way, tangible progress is being made internationally, particularly so in Europe following last November’s agreement to include ecocide-level crimes in the EU’s revised environmental crimes directive.

‘I have no doubt we’ll see international recognition of the crime of ecocide in the near future.’

CEO and co-founder of Stop Ecocide International

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