A dozen or so students from the University of Toronto are asking young people across Canada to tell the federal government that massive environmental damage and destruction should be an international crime.

Toronto's Stop Ecocide chapter published an open letter this week calling on the federal government to voice its support for criminalizing ecocide — or mass environmental destruction — in the eyes of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which typically prosecutes war crimes, genocide and other crimes against humanity.

Making ecocide a crime could potentially allow the court to prosecute companies and their executives for knowingly destroying the natural world and also change the way executives assess environmental risk to prevent such problems in the first place, Amalie Wilkinson, the Toronto chapter’s team lead, said in an interview.

“As soon as you have this law that says massive destruction of the environment with knowledge is a crime, anybody who's trying to make a corporate decision about that really takes it to heart,” said Wilkinson, who started the Toronto chapter last September.

When environmental risk needs to be factored into a company's investment decisions, some projects will become uninsurable, they said.

“Not only is it about the cases that get tried, but it's also about where the corporate decision-making just shifts because there’s that really strong legal red line,” she said.

To make ecocide a crime, 82 of the ICC's 123 member countries would need to back an amendment to the Rome Statute, the court's governing document. The global push for such an amendment was initially backed by small developing island states such as Vanuatu and the Maldives, while momentum is growing in the European Union as well, with Belgium taking a leading role.

Wilkinson said the group’s early outreach on post-secondary campuses and in high schools showed many young people don’t know about the push to criminalize environmental destruction but can point to activity in their hometowns that could be improved by the use of such legal guardrails.

“We need to find a way to mobilize that youth voice that was calling for something in our laws to really, really make it very clear that we're not going to stand for the destruction of our future,” she said.

Canada should play a leading role in the global push to make mass environmental destruction an international crime, the young people behind an open letter to the federal government say. #Ecocide
Stop Ecocide Toronto co-director Anna Clark (left) and member Allegra Nesbitt-Jerman (right) at a campus campaigning and awareness event. Photo by Lexi Newbigin

The group is hoping 300 people will sign the open letter calling for Ottawa to support the push to criminalize ecocide by the end of this week, and aim to get thousands on board by the end of the summer. They plan to send the signatures to relevant federal ministers and policy directors, including in the ministries of justice, environment, natural resources and foreign affairs.

The group has probably met around half of all sitting federal MPs, Wilkinson said, and has found champions for the cause in four of the five major parties (the Greens’ Elizabeth May, the Liberals’ Jenica Atwin, the NDP’s Laurel Collins, and Bloc Québécois’ Kristina Michaud).

While the group hopes to raise awareness of its efforts at the United Nations’ COP27 climate conference later this year, a proposed amendment to the Rome Statute would need to be presented at the ICC’s annual Assembly of State Parties meeting in December to move forward.

Canada was an early advocate for the establishment of the ICC and the first country to incorporate the obligations of the Rome Statute into national laws.

“It’s pretty easy to feel helpless, but this is something that gave me hope from the beginning,” said Wilkinson, who also runs social media and communications for the Canada team and acts as its youth ambassador.

“For me, there's no point at which you stop trying because this is our world and we've got to fight for it,” they said.

Morgan Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

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Might it be an idea to try to get it included in the Canadian criminal code? It could apply to activity within Canada, activity by corporations registered within Canada or listed on Canadian stock exchanges, activity by corporations operating within Canada, or whose goods/services are offered for sale to individuals within Canada ... and penalties need to be exacted personally upon members of the boards (directors, chief officers). That matter of making the corporate decision-makers personally liable certainly can be done: it was done in Ontario wrt companies that "disappeared" without paying workers.

(And if you want to consider what *can* be done, check out the provisions of our own variant of the American "Homeland Security Act". Anything that can be required of humans can be required of corporations, and more besides. It's a matter of the electorate demanding it, and legislation passing -- i.e., it depends upon political will.

And it also would need to apply to regulators and "enablers" ... insurers, financers.

Ecocide is a crime equivalent to genocide. The last great reckoning with genocidal regimes resulted in mass executions. It could,/should happen again since humanity seems to have learned nothing