End Ecocide in Europe campaign: Using the European Citizens Initiative to have a real impact

Implemented in April 2012, the European Citizens Initiative is the first transnational instrument of participatory democracy. It allows EU citizens to call directly on the European Commission to propose legislation of interest to them in an area of EU competence. When 1 million EU citizens from at least 7 countries support an initiative, the European Commission has to consider the proposal. In addition, a public hearing must be held in the European Parliament.

One example of using this tool as a means to make people’s voice heard is “End Ecocide in Europe“ which is run by a group of volunteers from all over Europe. We took the opportunity to interview Prisca Merz, Director of the campaign last week. She tells us more:

– Can you tell us about what the “End Ecocide in Europe campaign” entails?
Our main aim is to recognize that the destruction of our environment is a crime. We request direct liability for decision-makers in politics and business as well as their corporations for the large-scale destruction of our environment. We call that ecocide.

– What is the current status of the campaign?
With only three days to go until the deadline, we have collected well over 100,000 signatures. We have achieved lots of media coverage and, most importantly, built a network of individuals and organisations all over Europe sharing our aims. Over 100,000 EU citizens have provided their personal data such as ID number or birth date for this cause because they believe in it. This is a huge commitment! Even if we may not achieve the 1 million signatures required so that the European Commission is legally obliged to consider our proposal, we are planning to hand in an ordinary petition to the European Parliament anyway, so every additional vote counts! We will also continue collecting signatures after January 21st for that (with less strict data requirements). But in order to send out a strong signal now and start in the next round from a strong position, please sign now at www.endecocide.eu.

We didn’t want to do “only” awareness rising but also wanted to have a real impact.

-Why did you choose to use the ECI as a tool to lobby for the criminalisation of ecocide?

When we first heard of the concept of ecocide, we thought that this is something that the European public needs to know about and with what it needs to engage! But we didn’t want to do “only” awareness rising but also wanted to have a real impact. With this initiative, we wanted to encourage the EU to consider the concept of ecocide and potentially adopt legislation to outlaw it. The ECI can be a very strong tool, because the organisers have a legal right to their issue being considered when at least 1 million EU citizens from at least 7 EU member states support it.

– To what extent would the implementation of a law of ecocide impact the European citizen?

The beauty of the law of ecocide prevention is that it stops those who are really responsible for large-scale environmental damage. So mainly large corporations engaging in dangerous industrial activity.

Citizens such as you and me are dealing with results of ecocide quite frequently (for example the gas fuelling our cars or the oil heating our homes might have been extracted causing ecocide, materials of which our computers are made might have been mined in a non-sustainable way and the food we eat might have been produced using tons of pesticides). However, the customer often only has limited power to change those things (of course, one can make conscious decisions where to buy and which means of transport to choose, but sometimes a sustainable option is not available or too expensive). That’s why we demand a new law to be put in place. This would apply equally to all businesses operating in certain markets, so they would all be bound by it and as a result the consumer would only be receiving goods and services which did not cause ecocide in the process, so we would all be better off ultimately.

-You define ecocide as “extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystems of a given territory”. Could you explain how you would interpret “extensive damage”

Yes, our draft directive outlines that a court, when assessing a case of ecocide, has to assess its size (is it widespread?), duration (is the damage long-lasting?) and impact (is the damage severe?). While there is no detailed provision defining what exactly constitutes “extensive” for the context of our draft directive, the court can refer to existing law, such as the 1977 United Nations Convention on the Prohibition of Military or any other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques (ENMOD) which can be used as an orientation, what “widespread”, “long-lasting” and “severe” might mean:

·      “widespread”: encompassing an area on the scale of several hundred square kilometers;

·      “long-lasting”: lasting for a period of months, or approximately a season;

·      “severe”: involving serious or significant disruption or harm to human life, natural and economic resources or other assets.

However, I’d like to underline that this is only an indication and the definition might be refined, both, by the European institutions when drafting and adapting the proposal, as well as the member states, when they transpose EU legislation in national legislation. With this initiative, we just want to put the issue on the agenda.

With this initiative, we just want to put the issue on the agenda.

-Could you give us a concrete example of a case that could be tried under this definition?

Yes, take for example the Canadian tar sands. On an area of 140,000 km2 (so definitely wide-spread), oil is extracted from sands. Tons of chemicals are applied in the process which have a severe impact not only on wildlife and the ecosystem but also carries with it severe health impacts for the local population. Centuries old boreal forests are being destroyed and irreversibly lost.

This damage is thus long-term (the original ecosystem is destroyed and might not be restorable at all and if so, only with immense costs and over a very long timeframe), and the damage is severe, as demonstrated for example through the health impacts on the First Nation people who suffer from manifold levels of mercury and arsen in their drinking water and food supply, resulting in damage of brains, hearts, kidneys, lungs, and immune system. Next to the impact on the human inhabitants, also non-human inhabitants, such as birds, have been killed in large numbers.

We are not even mentioning the devastating impact of tar sands on our climate (with up to 22 times higher CO2 emissions than conventional crude oil, looking at the well-to-well cycle).

Canadian tar sands thus clearly constitute an example of ecocide and a mock trial held in 2011 which tested the law of ecocide prevention came to the same result.

– Do you believe that ecocide should be legally given the same status  as war crimes or crimes against peace and humanity, as currently being discussed by the UN? Why?

With the European Citizens’ Initiative we ask for the introduction of a European Ecocide Directive which would then be transposed into national law in all EU member states. The EU has the power to introduce such a law as demonstrated by the fact that our initiative was accepted for signature collection. We see this as a first step on the journey towards an international crime of ecocide.

With the Crimes against Peace and the International Criminal Court to trial them, the United Nations have for the first time in history established an international court which is able to trial crimes and to prosecute individuals. This structure would thus be the natural home for a new international crime of ecocide.

-How would the law of ecocide manage the problem of proving causation between the acts of companies and environmental damage?

This is a very important question. In order to establish the causal link between the activity of a company or corporation and the environmental damage, each case must be assessed by experts in front of a court. In some cases of ecocide, such as oil spills, tar sands, or open pit mining it is quite clear who is the responsible corporation.

Other cases, such as deforestation, water pollution or bee colony collapse disorder (likely due to extensive pesticide use), where many different actors are involved, are more complicated which actually relates to your next question.

The law of ecocide prevention protects both, human and non-human life.

– When multiple interest groups or business groups are involved, as  can often be the case in a European context, how would accountability  be distributed?

In this case, it would be the task of the court to assess how much each different actor contributed to the damage, based on evidence provided by experts and scientists. Then, accountability and sanctions would be distributed among the different actors.

Our draft directive also includes a provision making it illegal to “aid or abet” ecocide. So anyone who has helped or contributed to ecocide would also be liable to a certain extent.

-Would the law include environmental damage that impacts other species, not just humans? If there was a conflict of interest between the two groups, which would legally be given priority and why?

The ecocide directive regards the peaceful enjoyments of the “inhabitants” of a given territory. This word “inhabitants” is very important because it refers to all living beings, not only humans.

We advocate for the protection of all life. Therefore, the law of ecocide prevention protects both, human and non-human life.

Our draft directive doesn’t give any answer to potential conflicts of interest between the two groups. What I want to underline is that with this citizens’ initiative we want to put the law of ecocide prevention on the agenda of the European Union. Once the Commission decides to go ahead and starts the legislative process, many lawyers and legal experts will be involved and this is one of the questions they would probably have to examine in detail.

Thank you for your insight Prisca!