Also in August, a group of Chilean parliamentarians launched a legislative initiative proposing a new law that would amend the Chilean penal code to introduce a new crime of ecocide which is directly based on the new definition.
It is not just governments that have supported the idea. Ahead of COP26, the International Corporate Governance Network (ICGN), which has US$59 trillion assets under management, endorsed the criminalisation of ecocide in an open letter to COP26 outlining recommendations for investors, auditors, companies and governments.
UN secretary general Antonio Guterres has also voiced support for an international crime of ecocide, calling it “highly desirable”.
However, the campaign received a blow in September when the International Union for the Conservation of Nature refused to support the idea at its World Congress in Marseilles, saying it was neither “new nor urgent”.
Still, Mehta is very optimistic. Momentum has “massively” grown over the past few years, and especially in the past 12 months, she reported.
“This is probably due in part to the apocalyptic scenes of wildfires and floods we’ve seen. Also the grassroots protests and climate mobilisations have opened up the conversation in the media to that what we’ve been saying for several years,” she said.
“Just three or four years ago, people used to say to us that it was a nice idea. But it’s not just a nice idea – this is already starting to happen.
“It’s definitely further down the road than it looks. And we know that when it starts coming back at us more unexpected angles, like from the ICGN. That was amazing!” she said
The corporate world was starting to realise the importance of having legal guardrails in place to enable it to innovate. At the moment, the legal obligation of corporates was to maximise profits.
But they can only do this within the parameters the criminal law allows, so if you change that aspect, you can make change, she explains.
“How about instead of saying – ‘go make money but don’t kill anyone doing it’, you change it to ‘go make money but don’t kill anyone, or destroy the planet?’ The people that want to do the right thing can’t, because there’s no level playing field,” she said.
If ecocide was recognised as a crime by the ICC, it would have the same legal status as genocide. In order for this to happen, a member state of the ICC has to propose it, and a majority of other member states would need to support it, Mehta explained.
This would be followed by negotiations, after which at least two thirds of states would need to be in agreement for it to be adopted. Then it would be up to each country to ratify the decision, she said.
Once ratified at the ICC, the criminalisation of ecocide would need to be put into legislation in member state countries – potentially an efficient way of creating a new rule that crossed jurisdictions, which is essential to prevent multinational companies moving to another jurisdiction where regulations were more lax, she said.
“Moving forward together is politically safer for governments, because then they’re not the only ones making the move,” she said.
Also speaking at the event was French green MEP Marie Toussant, who is campaigning in the European Parliament for ecocide to be criminalised. She pointed to the example of fossil fuel companies who knew about climate change decades ago, yet continued to expand fossil fuel extraction and use.
“There are a growing number of states entering the action. We have one big opportunity at the European level. We need to work now, we need to gather forces – this is only the beginning,” she said.
Catherine Early is chief reporter for The Ecologist and a freelance environmental journalist. She tweets at @Cat_Early76.