Prosecution of Environmental War Crimes at the ICC: Exalted Thresholds

This post traces the history of Article 8(2)(b)(iv) (“Article”) of the Rome Statute (“Statute”) – the codification of the first international environmental war crime. The author argues that the Article’s exacting standard renders it toothless.

Countries today are in agreement that the environment is a ‘global common’; a resource shared by one and all, not limited by sovereign boundaries. Time and again, the international community has entered into agreements to motivate member state(s) to protect and reinvigorate the environment. For instance the Paris Agreement, Kyoto Protocol and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change are all aspirational frameworks pushing states to rethink their relationship with the environment. However, there are no real legal ramifications for the non-performance of these agreements, and their observance has largely been left open to the whims of politics and diplomacy. Moreover, these agreements are limited to state responsibility and do not percolate down to actions of individuals or other non-state actors.

International frameworks with legal consequences, such as the AP-1 to the Geneva Convention, (“AP-1”) are traditional in nature. These frameworks recognize international responsibility of states for ‘environmental destruction’ only in the backdrop of internationally recognized crimes perpetrated against ‘mankind’, such as genocide, crimes against humanity, or recently, crimes of aggression. International conventions such as the UN Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile use of Environmental Modification Techniques, 1976 (“ENMOD”), removed the need to situate environmental destruction in the backdrop of a concomitant international crime. Notwithstanding, the thrust of ENMOD depends on “damage, destruction or injury” caused to the state. The terms “damage, destruction or injury” have canonically been interpreted in an anthropocentric form, meaning consequent damage to the civilian population.

Eclipsed by climate change and environmental destruction, with rising temperatures and sinking cities, mankind today has been brought face to face with a harsh reality. The environment, as a victim ofcorporate negligence, wanton human behaviour, and silent sufferers of armed conflict, has borne countless losses. The repercussions of such prolonged environmental neglect and degradation are both far ranging and immutable. Recognizing the need for inter-generational equity; the international community through its collective duty to preserve and secure the environment conferred it with independent legal protection. With the Statute in force, and the establishment of the ICC in 2002, the world saw the advent of the first ecocentric war crime.

Ingredients of Article 8(2)(b)(iv)

Successful prosecution under this Article requires that conjunctive benchmarks of “widespread, long term, and severe” damage to the environment be met in the context of an international armed conflict. The meanings of these terms are not defined within this Article, the Statute, or in secondary sources of interpretation as per the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, 1969. The lack of a definition is exacerbated by Article 22 of the Statute which states that “ambiguity” should be interpreted favourably towards the accused.

The preparatory material of the Statute refers heavily to ENMOD and AP-1. Under these conventions the term “widespread” has a geographical bearing, and typically a damage of 100 square kilometres or upwards satisfies the element of “widespread” damage.

The term “long-term”, as the ordinary meaning suggests, has a temporal connotation. It refers to the continued effects of an attack. “Long-term” under AP-1 means negative environmental effects lasting a minimum of 10 years. Given the difficulty in evaluating lasting environmental damage at the time of the attack, it is likely that the drafters of the Statute viewed the quantum of 10 years as a range for understanding the term “long-term” and not a minimum threshold. Environmental impact assessments need to be carried out to gauge long-term effects of an attack. These involve significant costs and questionable efficacy.

Similarly one may look to AP-1 to understand the term “severe”, which refers to the potency of damage on the human and non-human environment. This interpretation takes us back to an anthropocentric approach; an otherwise progressive provision once again ties itself to civilian damage as a crucial factor in affixing international criminal responsibility.

Mens Rea and Military Objectives

The environment has often been the subject of wartime military attack, be it the scorched earth policy of the Napoleonic Wars to the use of  “Agent Orange” during the Vietnam War. The Article seeks to recognize the military’s strategic needs in conducting an offensive against the environment; it rationalizes that the damage being “widespread, long-term and severe” should also be “clearly excessive to the concrete and direct overall military advantage.” The Office of the Prosecutor, ICC opined that “clearly excessive” does not pertain to instances of collateral damage, which is purely a function of the proximity between civilians and military targets. Similarly in Prosecutor v Milan Martic, the ICTY held that any ensuing harm to civilian objects, such as the environment, cannot be justified in the “absence of closeness” between such objects and the legitimate military target.

Additionally, liability under this Article is confined to wrongdoings by military operatives in leadership positions. It provides a safe harbour to individuals without decision making powers in the military chain of command. “Leadership positions” are determined on the basis of an individuals’ say on the nature, timing, type, extent, and the general scope of the military attack. The military advantage is also qualified by the terms “concrete and direct”. The International Committee of the Red Cross has reflected that these terms do not justify “barely perceptible” military advantages. A military officer ordering an attack is required to demonstrate the potential military advantage and its nexus with the environmental attack.


Environmental crimes had been codified prior to 2002 under several international treaties in an anthropocentric fashion. This approach detracted from the damage caused to the environment, an object worthy of protection in and of itself. While the Article is certainly a harbinger in delinking environmental protection and damage from civilian harms, its exacting standard renders it toothless.      

Unsurprisingly, we are yet to see a single prosecution or investigation launched under this provision. Particularly in the context of gross environmental damage during recent day international armed conflicts, such as the Syrian War and the Ukraine War which are plagued by indiscriminate bombing, non-differentiation between military and civilian objects, and chemical warfare, which has the potential to pollute the lands and waterways of the country for generations to come. The ICC, as the only international court equipped to prosecute and convict individuals for crimes of international magnitude is wanting in realizing its potential.