When the natural environment is under attack, humans suffer too but would “ecocide” - the destruction of the environment - ever be recognized in international criminal law? And if it were to, could such a law ever work?
Not many of us are familiar with the idea of "Ecocide," which quite literally means "killing the environment."
It is often considered a radical idea but those who campaign for it consider it a reasonable one.
In theory, the idea is that destroying the natural world should have repercussions for the destroyer(s) and this "crime" should be under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
At the moment, ICC can prosecute only four forms of crime – genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression.
It is not like ICC cannot prosecute environmental crimes. It can. However, it is only possible when environmental crimes fall under the context of the four crimes ICC can prosecute.
Many individual countries these days have their own rules and regulations about how to prevent environmental harms, however, ecocide campaigners believe that the destruction will not cease until a global law is in place.
By global law, it is meant a solid and hard law. For example, in the Paris Agreement, countries set their own emission reduction targets. But by adding ecocide as a fifth crime to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, anyone who engages in environmental destruction would be liable to arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment. And that for many contemporary societies – is quite an impossible idea to stomach.
But many believe that a law like this would help achieve a cultural shift necessary to protect the earth.
Jojo Mehta, co-founder of the Stop Ecocide campaign said to BBC, "If something's a crime, we place it below a moral red line. At the moment, you can still go to the government and get a permit to frack or mine or drill for oil, whereas you can't just get a permit to kill people because it's criminal.
Once you set that parameter in place, you shift the cultural mindset as well as the legal reality."
Campaigners of ecocide believe that crime should only apply to the most serious environmental destructions such as oil spills, deep-sea mining, industrial livestock farming, and tar sand extraction, reports BBC. And after decades of being termed "radical," the idea is being discussed by many world leaders.
Emmanuel Macron, president of France, is one of them.
Earlier this year, more than 99% of the French citizens' assembly, a group of 150 people selected by lot to guide the country's climate policy, voted to make ecocide a crime.
That prompted Macron to announce that the government would consult with legal experts on how to incorporate it into French law.
Another European country Belgium's two Green parties have introduced an ecocide bill that proposes addressing the issue at both a national and international level – an idea that also has support among Swedish parliamentarians.
"We have all the conventions, we have all the goals. But the beautiful visions must go from paper into action," said Rebecka Le Moine, the Swedish MP who submitted a motion to her national parliament. "If these actions should be anything more than goodwill or activism, it must become law."
The International Criminal Court itself has placed increasing emphasis on prosecuting environmental crimes within the limitations of its existing jurisdiction.
A 2016 policy paper on case selection highlighted the court's inclination to prosecute crimes involving illegal natural resource exploitation, land grabbing and environmental damages.
Even then, Ecocide has some limitations.
According to David Whyte, professor of socio-legal studies at the University of Liverpool and author of a book called Ecocide, an international law in itself would not be enough to stop environmental destruction.
He pointed out that corporations cannot be prosecuted under international criminal law as it only applies to individuals. So, just by bringing down a CEO, it might not be enough to stop a business that harms the environment.
"It's really important to change our language and the way we think about what's harming the planet – we should push through this crime of ecocide – but it's not going to change anything unless, at the same time, we change the model of corporate capitalism," he says.
Ecocide still has a long way to go to be recognized as an international crime and there are challenges: There are political resistance, legal hurdles, definitional confusions, a lack of understanding of prosecution ground and perpetrator's intention and many more.
However, the hopeful thing is – despite the significant challenges, the idea of ecocide is gaining momentum.
Campaigners like Mehta understand these difficulties and her campaign group, Stop Ecocide, is currently working on a "clear and legally robust" definition of ecocide that countries could propose at the International Criminal Court. Once it is ready, a country would have to back it at The Hague.
Once a proposal is submitted, it would have to be adopted by a two-thirds majority vote – meaning, it needs the support of 82 countries.
No country has veto power and all nations have the same voting power regardless of size or wealth and the process could take anywhere between three to seven years.
Ecocide, even if it does not end up being a crime under the ICC, would remain a powerful idea for it is not a victimless act. When the natural environment is under attack, humans suffer too and more often than not, the most affected population of ecological harm are the people whose livelihoods depend on ecological resources.
The perpetrators are not blameless either and criminalizing ecocide would be a way to call time on the destruction of the Earth's ecosystems and those who live in them.