Threats to nature persist despite global efforts to save our planet. Is it time to get tough and make killing nature an international crime?

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Amira, a wild baby elephant, is buried after she was caught in a poacher’s trap, Sare, Aceh Besar, Indonesia, 24 September 2018. (EPA-EFE/HOTLI SIMANJUNTAK)

Should killing nature be an international crime?

“From the Pope to Greta Thunberg, there are growing calls for the crime of ‘ecocide’ to be recognised in international criminal law — but could such a law ever work?” the BBC asked in a recent article.

Some courts have granted legal standing to sacred rivers, trees and landscapes, and legal rights to non-human primates.

Numerous jurisdictions have ruled in favor of nature with respect to:

  • Pollution and other forms of destruction of nature
  • Trade in endangered species
  • Destruction of national parks, nature reserves and other protected areas and natural monuments
  • Killing wildlife in one’s own backyard

So, yes, there have been successes. But despite many well-intentioned local, national and international initiatives, nature continues to be under threat.

What can be done to stem the tide of climate change, pollution, desertification and loss of ecosystems?

Punishing crimes against nature would protect global human rights.

The criminalization of ecocide would be an extension of four crimes currently under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression.

I find this a promising idea — that punishing crimes against nature should be viewed as protecting basic human rights.

Certainly, the idea of “what is right,” can and does evolve. Two centuries ago, slavery was widespread. One century ago, women had few, if any, legal rights.

In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which protects civil and political rights, like the right to life, liberty, free speech and privacy. It includes economic, social and cultural rights, like the right to social security, health and education.

The exploitation of children through labor is prohibited by legislation worldwide, even if the laws do not consider all work by children as child labour. In 2010, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution, recognizing that access to clean water is a basic human right. No similar UN resolution on the right to breathe clean air has ever been passed.

Such protections often evolve from outlandish, outlier pie-in-the-sky desires into generally accepted concepts that are ingrained into our communal DNA.

For instance, who would have thought back in the 1960s that in just a few decades smoking would be banned in most indoor locations and smokers would become a semi-pariah class.

In the 1950s, my mother was proud to wear a status-defining mink stole. If she were alive today, I doubt she would buy another.

One challenge is that many noble environmental guidelines are enshrined in what is called international “soft law.” This includes most international treaties and conventions such as the Paris Agreement on climate change. Countries sign these treaties and make promises, but there is no policing mechanism to enforce things when ego and greed overtake good intentions.

In many cases, legal changes respond to social movements.

What tactics to protect nature are acceptable?

Some conservationists are frustrated that, in spite of good laws and good intentions, nature is being devastated at an increasing rate.

As a character in my novel EarthLove points out: “We’ve tried all the usual tactics, and the rainforest we love is still being destroyed.”

In the book, Rema, a brilliant and angry bio-engineer-princess, and Olivia, a similarly brilliant, similarly angry robotics engineer, establish a foundation that engages in “standard” save-the-world activities. They:

  • Support scientific studies and fund white papers and action plans
  • Help create national parks and train protected area staff
  • Lobby the United Nations to create an Environmental Bill of Rights
  • Organize media outreach to warn Western consumers about the evils of oil palm and support boycotts of palm oil
  • Help local organizations write and circulate on-line petitions sent to parliamentarians
  • Join high-level panels that write guidelines for “sustainable” oil palm production and “green-certification” schemes
  • Give interviews to CNN and meet with the good and great around the world
  • March, arm-in-arm, with young people around the world in loud but peaceful demonstrations, singing “Save my planet, now!” to the theme of “We Shall Overcome.”

Rema and Olivia are good women playing the “good girl” role — be confident, work within the system and rest assured that change will happen once people understand the issues and what’s at stake.

But their earnest, more-of-the-same efforts do not work. So they go rogue, convinced that you cannot change the system without breaking some eggs.

Here’s a crucial question that Rema and Oliva ask themselves: What action, whether moral, ethical, legal or feasible, will be most effective in destroying the oil palm industry?

So, Rema and Olivia go off the beaten path. They:

  • Manipulate orangutans to become eco-guerillas that terrorize oil palm workers, in an attempt to shut down the operations
  • Sabotage palm oil factories in an attempt to shut down the supply chain. (They considered bombing factories but decided they did not want to take human lives.)
  • Create new forms of weevils that destroy oil palm trees and attack plantations with little beasties sent over in drones
  • Bio-engineer a variant of Agent Orange that destroys oil palms.

To many people, the two women are eco-terrorists. Their efforts do not sit comfortably with “business-as-usual,” “work-within-the-system” nature conservation groups. These two women are arguably more than a little mad. They are angry, they are driven, they are creative and they have technical skills, political muscle and lots of money.

Still, in EarthLove’s story, they fail.

Should we accept more of the same?

In real life, it seems there are several options to reverse the course of destruction.

One would be to continue with “more of the same” — engaging in small but useful initiatives that might gather momentum. Such an approach could include:

  • More and better policing to ensure laws are enforced
  • More autonomy, combined with guarantees of land ownership, to local communities
  • New forms of collaborative protected areas, such as biosphere reserves
  • More initiatives, such as “green labelling” and “sustainable certification,” which unite industry and business groups with conservation and local development organizations
  • An overall improvement in living conditions so people have less incentive to ravage nature
  • Widespread adoption of green energy
  • Innovative financial models to change the way we do business and how we calculate value
  • Greater public awareness that healthy nature is essential for our future well-being

Perhaps the emphasis should be on expanding feel-good initiatives that challenge the Biblical concept that man has dominion over nature?

  • The idea that humanity is part of nature, part of the thread of life. We are not conquerors of nature, we are fellow voyagers
  • The concept of juristic personhood for nature
  • The recognition that nature, in all its forms, has rights
  • Enshrining a biophilia relationship with nature in international “soft” law such as the “Terra Carta” or Earth charter, recently endorsed by Prince Charles

Aggression instead of negotiation?

Should we agree with Rema and Olivia that the “forces of evil,” as they term the anti-nature Big Men, need to be challenged with aggression, not negotiation?

Or should we throw in the towel, accept that at its core, Homo sapiens is a profit-driven, selfish, egocentric animal that continually strives for more?

Perhaps there is nothing to be done. That we should continue to live our lives much as they are and let the next generation worry about intractable conservation problems such as climate change, desertification, pollution, loss of biodiversity, over-fishing and ….

Well, you know the list by now.

Three questions to consider:

  • How concerned are you about the health of the environment compared to civil justice, freedom of speech, modern-day slavery and challenges to democracy?
  • What global social revolutions are likely to take place in the next 20 years?
  • How optimistic are you that your children will have a better life than you?
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Paul Spencer Sochaczewski is a Geneva-based writer who has lived and worked in more than 80 countries, including long stints in Southeast Asia. He has written 14 books. His latest book, a satiric eco-adventure entitled "EarthLove" and published by Explorer’s Eye Press, is available on Amazon. He can be contacted at www.sochaczewski.com.

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Climate change To save Earth, should killing nature be made a crime?