Story | 14 May, 2024

IUCN WCEL Advances Proposal to Incorporate Environmental Destruction as a Crime Against Humanity in Forthcoming Negotiations on a Dedicated Convention

Responding to the calls of multiple States, the IUCN WCEL has proposed that the crime of environmental destruction, when perpetrated as a means to damage, destroy, or injure any civilian population, be included in an eventual Convention on Crimes Against Humanity.

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It is a curious anomaly: although the world has long benefitted from dedicated conventions proscribing genocide (Genocide Convention) and war crimes (Hague Conventions, Geneva Conventions and its Additional Protocols), no similar convention exists for crimes against humanity. Following more than 15 years of sustained effort, the initiative to rectify this lacuna in the architecture of international law has graduated from civil society to the International Law Commission to the Sixth Committee of the General Assembly, which looks poised to submit the matter to the General Assembly in anticipation of a formal negotiation process.

 

The precise scope of a future convention is still a matter for discussion, with many State representatives persuasively arguing that the enumerated list of crimes against humanity – currently copied from the Rome Statute creating the International Criminal Court – should reflect the progressive development of the law since that instrument’s conclusion back in 1998. In this respect, a number of States have elucidated the need for a future convention to incorporate environmental crimes as crimes against humanity, including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Eritrea, Sierra Leone and, most recently, Ethiopia, Morocco, and Nigeria.

Heeding this call, the IUCN WCEL prepared and advanced a realistic proposal for States to add to the list of crimes against humanity: “widespread, long-lasting, or severe destruction of the natural environment as the means of destruction, damage, or injury to any civilian population”, when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack.

As explained in the proposal, this definition is drawn from Article 1(1) of the ENMOD Convention, which has been championed by the General Assembly, features 78 Parties from an impressive cross-section of States, and was incorporated into the Principles on protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts. This compelling basis, with its close links to customary international law prohibiting the destruction of the natural environment as a weapon, should ensure that the IUCN’s proposal can receive support even from States that might be instinctively cautious about expanding the list of crimes against humanity to include crimes without adequate grounding in international law.

There could well be additional bases for environmental harm to be incorporated into the eventual framework governing crimes against humanity. In this regard, States have suggested that “ecocide”, “use of nuclear weapons”, “exploitation of natural resources”, as well as “economic and mineral exploitation and environmental degradation” could also serve as a basis, according to the draft summary of the Sixth Committee’s sessions, prepared 11 April 2024, at para. 35. The IUCN WCEL stands ready to facilitate the preparation of related proposals, should they garner sufficient State support to suggest their possible adoption or incorporation and to merit a more detailed proposal for consideration.

The IUCN WCEL joins other organisations and experts in expressing the hope that States will shortly commence negotiation on the contents of a Convention on Crimes Against Humanity. In particular, the IUCN WCEL urges States to take due consideration of the need to reflect environmental destruction among the enumerated crimes against humanity, and commends to States its proposal as a realistic way to account for this tragically foreseeable crime.


This article was produced by the IUCN WCEL Environmental Security and Conflict Law Specialist Group. More information here.