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Will we get an ecocide law NOW?

According to the international ecocide campaign, large-scale, serious, and systematic destruction of nature should be criminalized internationally, similar to war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and the crime of aggression. The international Stop Ecocide campaign has been active since 2017 and has been operational in Finland since 2020. Campaigning in West Africa has just begun.

In the Ecocide Law NOW! discussion organized by the Pekka Kuusi Ecofoundation and the Siemenpuu Foundation on September 3, 2023, at the Finnish Social Forum, the activities of the campaign in Finland and globally were deliberated upon. The introduction was given by Ambassador Emeritus Mikko Pyhälä, followed by comments from Member of Parliament Mai Kivelä, former Finnish Youth Climate Delegate Maija Kuivalainen, and Ella Jokinen from Ecocide Law Finland. A video greeting from West Africa was received from the Mali campaign team. The discussion was moderated by Hanna Matinpuro, Executive Director of Siemenpuu.

According to Mikko Pyhälä’s informative presentation (pdf, 4.1 Mb), the father of the ecocide concept was biologist Arthur Galston, who in 1970 defined the bombings in Vietnam using the Agent Orange chemical as ecocide. Also Prime Minister Olof Palme of Sweden spoke about the concept at the 1972 Stockholm Environmental Conference.

However, it took almost 40 years until, in 2010, environmental lawyer Polly Higgins proposed the crime of ecocide to the UN International Law Commission. In 2012, the End Ecocide on Earth campaign demanded the inclusion of ecocide in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and called on the European Parliament to recognize it as a crime.

Nationally, Vietnam was the first to incorporate environmental destruction into its legislation in 1990. After this, several former Soviet republics, including Russia (1996), have drafted national environmental destruction laws. However, these laws have been applied sparingly or not at all.

“Knowingly caused serious, widespread, or long-term environmental damage”

In 2020, the Stop Ecocide Foundation set up an independent international panel of experts, consisting of esteemed experts in environmental and international law. In June 2021, the panel made its recommendation for the definition of ecocide as an international crime:

“Ecocide” means unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts.

An unofficial Finnish translation was made by Mikko Pyhälä and the Chairman of the Finnish Nature Panel, Prof. Janne Kotiaho.

It is noteworthy in the definition that the law would not be retroactive (past crimes could not be dealt with), but it would rather have a preventive effect on serious environmental crimes and unfair and destructive competition by companies.

The international ecocide law has received strong support in recent years not only from NGOs, artists, and researchers but also from the UN, the leadership of the Catholic Church, and governments of several countries. Parliamentarians have an international Ecocide Alliance forum, and companies have a similar Ecocide Law Alliance. On March 29, 2023, the European Parliament decided to support the inclusion of environmental destruction in the EU’s environmental crime directive; the final vote on this will be in October 2023.

In Finland, in December 2020, a petition from academics, politicians, artists, religious influencers, and citizen activists was delivered to Prime Minister Sanna Marin. Since then, Finnish Foreign and Environmental ministers have spoken on the matter, and former president of Finland Tarja Halonen gave an ecocide speech on May 31, 2022, at a Pre Stockholm+50 Conference.

In June 2022, Member of Parliament Mai Kivelä made a motion for the Finnish government to support the law in the ICC. In December 2023, the International Criminal Court will convene at the next Conference of States Parties. Ecocide law will be discussed if half (62) of the member states support it. The law can be approved with the votes of two-thirds, or 82 countries. Small island states have a significant proportion of vote.

Greetings from Mali, Parliament of Finland, National Union of Students, and the Finnish ecocide campaign

In his video greeting, Amza Kone, contact person for Mali’s ecocide campaign, spoke about the Mali action group Group d’Action Contre Ecocide Mali (GACEM). GACEM was founded by 15 Malian environmental and climate actors in 2023. The group’s goal is for Mali and other African countries to recognize ecocide as a crime under international law. GACEM collaborates especially with campaign networks in Congo and Burkina Faso, and recently the campaign has expanded to Senegal and Ivory Coast. French-speaking West African organizations also work with the international campaign to approach the African Human Rights Commission and to influence the African Union.

In her speech, Mai Kivelä emphasized that current laws do not protect citizens and nature from environmental crimes, so a law on ecocide is needed. Although actions that destroy nature should ideally be prohibited, even restricting them is difficult in current politics. Thus, the criminal law route, also regarding, for example, climate litigation, seems effective in international law. For example, Ukraine supports ecocide law due to the environmental damage caused by Russia’s war of aggression.

According to Kivelä, ecocide law is somewhat a continuation of the campaigns for animal rights and for corporate responsibility. There would also be a need in Finland to update the Enterprises Act so that the responsibility of corporate management would not be solely to produce maximum financial benefit for shareholders.

Maija Kuivalainen spoke about her advocacy for the criminalization of ecocide when she served as Finland’s Youth Climate Delegate in 2021–2022. Due to her active participation, the National Union of Student of Finland (SYL), which represents 140,000 members and all Finnish student unions, has also added the promotion of ecocide law to its program.

Kuivalainen emphasized that everyone can be larger than their size through their connections and thus increase awareness and influence in favour of ecocide law in a multi-voice manner in different parts of society.

Representing the Finnish ecocide campaign, law clerk Ella Jokinen highlighted international law, where traditionally state interests are confrontational and responsibility is also directed at such states. In international criminal law, war criminals are held accountable, and perhaps in the future, environmental criminals will be as well, which is currently possible only in the context of war crimes. Although the purpose of the campaign is to make ecocide an international crime, it may also affect laws at the national level.

At the end of the event, there was a discussion, among other things, about trade agreements and related investment protections, and whether ecocide law could put pressure on changing them. The issue is topical because the EU-MERCOSUR Free Trade Agreement has been signed but has not yet been ratified. The agreement would also have implications for the Amazon rainforests and natural resources. Brazil’s current president, Lula, seeks to protect the Amazon, but he faces a lot of opposition in the country’s parliament and senate.

In one question, the term ecocide was considered rather mild; would it be better to talk about environmental murder or killing? In his response, Mikko Pyhälä said that in defining the concept, the environment of the Earth encompasses biosphere, cryosphere (ice cover), lithosphere (rock cover), hydrosphere, atmosphere, and outer space. Since part of the Earth’s nature is inanimate, it cannot be killed.

It was also pointed out in the discussion that even the current ruling parties have persons who are favourably disposed to the legal initiative, even though ecocide was not mentioned in the Government Program. In this matter too, a positive legislative change to Finland may come through the European Union.

Timo Kuronen


Event Image: Ecocide Law NOW! – event discussants (from left to right): Mikko Pyhälä, Mai Kivelä, Maija Kuivalainen, and Ella Jokinen. Photo: Timo Kuronen/ Siemenpuu