How long before we can punish eco-criminals?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2012, 12:00am


There was no law against genocide in the early 1940s; it only became an internationally recognised crime after the worst genocide of modern history had actually happened. Similarly, there is no law against 'ecocide' now. That will only come to pass when the damage to the environment has become so extreme that large numbers of people in rich countries are dying.

They are already dying in some poor countries, but that makes no difference because they are powerless. By the time it starts to hurt large numbers of people in powerful countries, most of the politicians who conspired to smother any substantial progress at the Rio+20 Earth Summit will be safely beyond the reach of any law. But eventually there will be a law.

Rio+20, which ended last Friday, was touted as a 'once-in-a-generation' chance to build on the achievements of the original Earth Summit. That extraordinary event, 20 years ago, produced a legally binding treaty on biodiversity, an agreement on combating climate change that led to the Kyoto Protocol, the first initiative for protecting the remaining forests, and much more.

This time, few leaders of the major powers even bothered to attend; only arriving to sign the final summit statement 'The Future We Want', which had already been nibbled to death by special interests. A plan to stop the destruction of oceans was blocked by the US, Canada and Russia. A call to end subsidies for fossil fuels was removed from the final text, as was language emphasising the reproductive rights of women. And there were no new commitments on fighting climate change.

The declared goal of the conference - to reconcile economic development and environmental protection by giving priority to the goal of a 'green' (that is, sustainable) economy - simply vanished in a cloud of vague generalities.

How did it end up like this? You cannot just blame the economy: Rio+20 would probably have ended just as badly if there had been no 2008 financial crash.

Twenty years ago, climate change, biodiversity, preservation of oceans and forests, and sustainable development were relatively fresh challenges. Now everybody understands how tough those challenges are. We have a 20-year history of defeats on this agenda, and politicians never like to be linked to lost causes. Thus, we sleepwalk towards disaster - but that does not absolve our leaders of responsibility.

At the recent World Congress on Justice, Law and Governance for Environmental Sustainability, a group of 'radical' lawyers proposed 'ecocide' should be made a crime. They were only radical in the sense a group calling for a law against genocide would have been thought radical in 1935.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based international journalist