Vanuatu leads campaign to criminalize ecocide

Kenneth R. Rosen


In this edition, Vanuatu’s campaign to recognize ‘ecocide’ as a crime was propelled by the war in Ukraine.

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Air quality, biodiversity and ecosystem health are rarely considered to be casualties of war. The term “ecocide” was introduced by scientists during the Vietnam War to describe the indelible impact of Agent Orange. The United States, wrote David Zierler in “The Invention of Ecocide,” his 2011 book, “defoliated approximately five million acres of forests in an attempt to expose communist guerilla fighters.” The “herbicidal warfare program,” he added, targeted “entire ecosystems.” 

Since then, ecocide has come to describe any such wanton and deliberate destruction of the environment by humans, from particular acts of war to commercial compulsions, such as extracting oil in the Arctic, destroying the Amazon rainforest in Brazil and mining for minerals in Venezuela. 

The term has also been applied to Russia’s takeover of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, the largest in Europe. In August 2022, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called shelling and artillery fire near the plant a “suicidal thing.” Last week, Rafael Grossi, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said the situation near the plant was “becoming increasingly unpredictable and potentially dangerous.” 

In March and April, members of the European Parliament sought to criminalize ecocide. The proposed legislation was unexpectedly blunt: Causing “severe and widespread, or severe and long-term, or severe and irreversible damage to the quality of air, the quality of soil or the quality of water, or to biodiversity, to ecosystem services and functions, or to animals or plants” would become a criminal offense.

There is growing pressure for the International Criminal Court to make ecocide the world’s fifth international crime, alongside genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression. Recognizing ecocide, said Marie Toussaint, a member of the European Parliament, “would send a strong signal to end impunity around environmental crimes.”


Efforts by the ICC and other governmental bodies to recognize ecocide as a crime have been slow. But climate change and rising sea levels have become an existential threat. In 2019, the small South Pacific nation of Vanuatu told the EU that it had “experienced disasters and related calamities of unprecedented scale” over the previous five years and that climate change represented a “threat to our environment, and ultimately our existence as sovereign nations.” Between 2019 and 2021, momentum grew as high profile figures like Pope Francis, Greta Thunberg and French President Emmanuel Macron joined the call for ecocide to be recognized under international criminal law.

In 2021, a draft law was prepared by a global group of legal experts for the Stop Ecocide Foundation, which is trying to persuade the International Criminal Court to add ecocide to the four crimes it has the remit to prosecute according to 1998 Rome Statute. As of now 10 countries recognize ecocide as a crime, including both Russia and Ukraine. And in July 2022, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution recognizing a universal right to clean, healthy, breathable, and sustainable environments. Also in 2022, Vanuatu became the first country to call for a global treaty to eliminate fossil fuels. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine spurred legislators into action, threatening the long-standing impunity with which fossil fuel, logging and mining companies have historically operated and exposing them to criminal liability for producing pollution.


Small nation states like Vanuatu, Tuvalu, and Antigua and Barbuda, all of which face extreme risks to their populations as a result of climate change and are eager to push the ICC into declaring crimes against the environment to be violations of international law. 

Adding ecocide to the international crimes described in the Rome Statute, said Toussaint, the European MP, would be “a civilizational transformation.”

Along with the tens of thousands of people who’ve perished since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine — which is home to 35% of the continent’s biodiversity — some 20% of protected areas, 600 animal species and 750 plant species have been impacted by the war. 

“The laws of the economy are not above the laws of nature. Recognizing ecocide would mean recognizing the value of nature as such, its intrinsic value, and establishing that no one has the right of leisure to hurt and harm it,” Toussaint said. “Considering its wealth, and its history, the European Union has the duty to urgently take that direction and to pull the rest of the world with us.” The question is, will Russia be brought to account for what Ukraine says are 2,303 acts of ecocide?

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