Mock trial advances ecocide campaign

Following a mock trial to test the viability of large-scale ecosystem destruction being designated a crime against peace, an ecocide law is a step closer to becoming reality

Two CEOs of an energy company extracting oil from tar sands were found guilty of ecocide – mass destruction of the environment – in a mock trial at the UK Supreme Court on 30 September 2011.

The event was an attempt to try and test a potential new international law to prosecute the crime of ecocide. Although the defendants were played by actors, the trial otherwise operated as if it were a real case.

It took just 50 minutes for the jury – consisting of public volunteers vetted to ensure impartiality – to return with two unanimous guilty convictions of ecocide against the CEO’s of fictional companies, Global Petroleum Company and Glamis Group. Both were convicted on charges of ecocide relating to oil extraction at the Athabasca Tar Sands in Canada, while the boss of Global Petroleum was acquitted of charges relating to an oil spill.

Huw Spanner, foreman of the Jury, said: “We reached unanimous verdicts on the two tar sands cases very quickly. It seemed to us beyond doubt that the two CEOs had willfully polluted large areas of water that were left extremely hostile to life… With regard to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, we all agreed that the CEO of Global Petroleum was guilty of something very serious – but was it ecocide? We had only half an hour to consider this question and, on the evidence presented to us, nine of us were sufficiently unsure to acquit him.

“We found the whole experience fascinating. Although the ‘trial’ was very condensed, and the time we had to deliberate very short, we tried to approach our task like a proper jury.”

Michael Mansfield QC, appearing for the prosecution, said: “Companies cannot be given a licence to spill and kill provided they clear it up. The most pressing issue for any government in the world today, is the attack on our planet.”

Mr. Mansfield is among those supporting the proposal for the UN to make ecocide an international crime. Other advocates include the former environment minister, Michael Meacher MP; Dame Jane Goodall; former chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission, Sir Jonathon Porritt; The World Future Council and numerous other international NGOs and activists.

Dr Vandana Shiva, the renowned Indian physicist and environmentalist said: “The ecocide trial is a very important step in waking us up to the violence which is the foundation of the current economy. We need another model that is non-violent, which makes peace with the Earth. The ideal of limitless growth is leading to limitless violations of the rights of the Earth and of the rights of nature.”

Supporters are calling for ecocide to be on the agenda at Rio+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in June 2012.

The Earth’s right to life is currently being considered by the UN under a proposed universal declaration of Earth rights. Just as the human right to life is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the crime of genocide, so the Earth’s right to life would be enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Earth Rights and the crime of ecocide.

“The ethical and moral case for the banning of ecocides must now be at the forefront of decision-makers in government and business throughout the world,” said Simon Hamilton, chairman of The Hamilton Group, the not-for-profit organisation behind the ecocide trial, adding that the event validated the potential law.

Having written an Ecocide Act for use at the trial, Polly Higgins, the environmental lawyer who established the ecocide campaign, agreed the trial had been incredibly useful. “It allowed us to see one or two gaps and that if we tweaked and amended things we’d have something watertight that all countries can use,” she told Positive News.

In a submission to the UN International Law Commission, Higgins defined ecocide as: “The extensive damage, destruction to or loss of ecosystems 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 severely diminished.”