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Ecocide, Impunity And Polly Higgins

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Sunday, April 21, 2019, is a day that would pass in history as one of a thoroughly needless and mindless bloodletting. On that day, marauding violent men snuffed the life out of 17 citizens in Yar Center, near Sherere Community in Kankara local government area of Katsina State, Nigeria. In Sri Lanka, multiple attacks in churches and hotels took the life of more than 300 persons in an unconscionable visitation of hate on innocent individuals. Various reasons have been hazarded as being the root cause of the murders, including revenge for attacks elsewhere and the sheer spread of terror. The truth is that murder cannot be justified and must be condemned.

Sadly, these crimes were committed at a time when the world was marking the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The mayhem in churches in Sri Lanka illustrated the depth of depravity that humans can sink to. While shock and consternation gripped communities in diverse places, a key voice for sanity in our relationship with nature, ourselves and other species quietly slipped away. From reports, we read that she passed on peacefully. We are talking of Polly Higgins who passed on at the age of 50.

Higgins passed on in the evening of Easter Sunday, a day marked by the inconceivable mass murders in churches and hotels of Sri Lanka as well as atrocious killings in Nigeria and continued violence elsewhere. She stood out as a shining light demanding the recognition of ecocide as a crime in the class of the crime of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crimes of aggression. She was in the forefront of the campaign for the addition of ecocide among these crimes against peace which are all listed in Article 5(1) of the Rome Statute.

Ecocide is defined as “the extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been or will be severely diminished.”

I was privileged to meet Higgins in the GAIA Embassy as we fondly call the home of Liz Hosken in London. She wrote three books on ecocide, including one titled Eradicating Ecocide. Higgins actively spoke on UN platforms and to governments, reminding them that this crime was indeed on the draft of the Rome Statute up to 1999 when it was dropped at the insistence of a handful of nations.

She drew the stark link between corporate actions and the extensive destruction of ecosystems in the drive for profit that discounts the people and the planet. Her clear illustrations of the massive ecological destruction around us as ecocide quickly captured my attention. It is certain that the objective observation of the ongoing or prospective crimes around the exploitation of Mother Earth will show that this is one crime that must be recognised today and not delayed any further. Crimes of this magnitude are going on around the world, benefiting powerful entities such as transnational corporations and the politicians that do their beck-and-call.

Nigerians will agree that we are living witnesses of ecological and even cultural ecocide on a huge scale. The significant pollution including oil spills and gas flares in the Niger Delta are certainly in this group. Some of these pollutions are so extensive that it will require a lifetime (or more) of consistent remediation and restoration effort to recover the damaged ecosystems. A generation is universally calculated as thirty (30) years, so when the UNEP report on the Ogoni environment indicated that the projected timeframe for the cleanup and restoration of the environment would span about 30 years they were saying that we are in for a task of mammoth proportions. When we add the cleanup of other parts of the Niger Delta where no systematic cleanup effort has started, we see that the crimes here clearly fit the definition of ecocide.

Crimes committed in the oil and gas fields include cultural ecocide as they include deforestation and cultural dislocations beyond the environmental harms. When pollution alters the environment, livelihoods and moral bearings of communities, we see ecocide in action.

We can also see unfolding ecocide in the massive deforestation to be orchestrated by the proposed superhighway project of the Cross River State Government (CRSG) where besides expected deforestation, the state is erecting a financial infrastructure where funds would be channeled to a private entity every month at the rate of three hundred million naira and in the process would enslave citizens over a mindboggling stretch of six (6) generations.

Ecological ecocide also occurs when actions are taken that lead to massive biodiversity loss. Example of this is the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to replace or irreversibly pollute, erode or alter local crop and/or animal varieties. Biodiversity erosion is not only threatened by the genetic engineering processes which produce novel/unnatural organisms but also by the evolving variants, such as gene drives, that are capable of wiping out entire species within a few lifetimes.

Moreover, the chemicals, such as herbicides used in the propagation of GMOs and related processes, harm and destroy a wide spectrum of other plants and organisms not considered as useful by the users of the technology. We should quickly remind ourselves that the herbicides containing glyphosate are offshoots of a biological warfare, specifically referring to the use of defoliants such as Agent Orange over Vietnam in the 1960s. Those chemicals caused persistent harms to plants, animals and humans. The world saw compounded crimes right there. It is irresponsible to see these chemicals applied on our lawns and foods as benign or safe.

Polly Higgins took upon herself a fight for global justice. The crime of ecocide destroys the environment, negates the right of nature to maintain her cycles and destroys the ways of life of peoples. Climate crimes are crimes of ecocide and ought to be treated as such. The uprisings against climate action are indicative of a great awakening to the grave threats that are possibly irreparable.

The addition of the Crime of Ecocide to the Rome Statute would provide an instrument for the punishment of crimes often written off and externalized as inevitable environmental costs. Higgins was clear that the adoption of the Crime of Ecocide should not be delayed. It will bring a big relief to communities that have suffered extensive ecological harms and emotional injuries through gyrations in circuitous and endless adversarial legal systems. It will rip off the corporate veil that shields chief executives of corporations as well as government ministers from direct and personal accountability. The addition of the Crime of Ecocide aims at eliminating fundamental harms arising from an economic system that worships private property, power and profit to the detriment of the people and profit.

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