Defending The Environment

In an unprecedented move this weekg, the International Criminal Court (ICC) declared that it would start treating cases involving environmental destruction, misuse of land, and illegal dispossession of lands as crimes against humanity. The Hague-based court, established in 1998 by the Rome Statute, made the announcement in a policy document released last week by the ICC's prosecutor.

Article 5a, section 41 of the document states:

[T]he Office will give particular consideration to prosecuting Rome Statute crimes that are committed by means of, or that result in, inter alia, the destruction of the environment, the illegal exploitation of natural resources or the illegal dispossession of land.

This is a promising development that drew much praise for an institution sometimes criticized for its slow progress on convictions. Amongst those lauding the ICC is Global Witness executive director Gillian Caldwell, describing the policy in a statement as "a powerful message that the terrible impacts of land grabbing and environmental destruction have been acknowledged at the highest level of criminal justice."

Trial Run For Policy Change

While Caldwell believes that "company bosses and politicians complicit in violently seizing land, razing tropical forests or poisoning water sources could soon find themselves standing trial in the Hague alongside war criminals and dictators," David Bosco of the American University's School of International Service suggests otherwise.

"I wouldn't say those kind of prosecutions would be likely. They would be very hard to bring," he told The Washington Post. In the future, the ICC could partner with national governments on cases involving the environment, but it would most probably not prosecute those crimes in ICC courts, Bosco believes.

The document is, clearly, a step in the right direction, but don't expect the announcement to mean that oil companies will now be prosecuted. Experts emphasized that the ICC is not changing the definition of a crime against the environment, as that has already been defined in the Rome Statute.

The first test of the new policy will be seen in the ICC's decision on a case filed in 2014 against Cambodia for illegal land-grabbing practices, which, according to London-based human rights firm Global Diligence, have forcibly displaced 350,000 people from their homes since 2002.

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