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.

Conclusion

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.

Past Time for Respect for Indigenous Peoples and the Environment

Despite the challenges of 2021, it closed with some important milestones. At long last, the U.N. Human Rights Council recognized “the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment” and appointed a Special Rapporteur to focus on rights in the context of climate change. Additionally, the U.S. officially designated Indigenous Peoples’ Day on October 11. President Biden’s proclamation acknowledges “the centuries-long campaign of violence, displacement, assimilation, and terror wrought upon Native communities” and celebrates Indigenous Peoples’ “resilience and strength” and “immeasurable positive impact . . . on every aspect of American society.”

Violence against Indigenous Peoples and nature is deeply intertwined. For generations, Indigenous lands have been exploited as a “hunting ground” for resources with colonialism propped up by racial and gender hierarchies. In the U.S., Native American and Alaska Native women experience sexual assault at a rate 2.5 times higher than other women, with 86% of perpetrators non-Native men. For example, the oil boom in the Bakken region brought a 75% increase in sexual assaults and a 53% increase in violence with the influx of hundreds of transient male workers, housed in “Man Camps” near Indian territories. Moreover, with strained infrastructure and Indian tribes lacking jurisdiction to prosecute non-Indian defendants, there is often no accountability. Indigenous leaders have highlighted the link between sovereignty over land and bodily autonomy.

Against this backdrop of abuse, the climate crisis is displacing Indigenous communities at increasing rates and leading to economic instability, land disputes, and disruptions in social safety nets, contributing to increased risk of gender-based violence. Moreover, Indigenous leaders have been at the forefront of sounding the alarm on climate change and may also experience violence as retaliation for their actions as human rights defenders confronting environmental degradation. Further, the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted Indigenous Peoples, aggravating preexisting inequalities and resulting in heightened rates of infection and  increased environmental degradation, economic insecurity, and gender-based violence, threatening Indigenous cultures. 

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Interview with Professor Mark Drumbl (Part-2)

4. The recent reparations order in the Ntaganda case mentions that collective reparations will be provided through the Trust Fund for Victims. Do you have any suggestions in mind with regard to how the Trust Fund for Victims can deliver reparations efficiently and in a time-bound manner?

One of the major problems is resources. The trust fund is undercapitalized. Now we have Ntaganda, and we had quite a significant amount of reparations awarded in Al- Mahdi. The Trust Fund has made awards in the past, at times unrelated to actual convictions like in Uganda. I remember speaking to a reporter about Ntaganda and it almost seems to me that reparative awards are going in the direction of symbolic justice. This may not intrinsically be a bad thing but then it should be described as such, which it is not. I cannot help but wonder if the entire reparative structure of international criminal justice would be better served by creating an independent commission apart from the ICC.

My other concern with reparative justice at the ICC is that, fundamentally, the ICC is a penal organization and reparative justice has been added on to it in the form of the Trust Fund and proceedings related to reparations. The norm is punitive justice and then you have this add-on. Add-ons are always subjacent and the second priority.

We do not need scattered penal judgments to tell us which societies are in need of reparations to deal with mass victimization.

Another concern that I have is the existence of the Trust Fund which might divert attention from the fact that through other forms of foreign aid which I would prefer to call our cosmopolitan duty we can inject large amounts of funds into places that have witnessed mass atrocities with the view to societal reconstruction. Why does it have to be connected to guilt or innocence of a small number of perpetrators who for reasons of absolute coincidence just happen to fall into the custody of ICC? I worry about that as well. The more we talk about Trust Funds, the less we feel we need to talk about the fact that reparations do not require a courtroom to be given.

5. What are your opinions about considering ecocide as an international crime?

I have written about ecocide in the past. I am skeptical that this is something that should fall within the framework of the ICC. I do not think it has the resources. I am not certain what kind of awards the Court can issue that would actually in this instance be reparative. I think for crimes such as environmental crimes the push should be for greater consciousness at the national level. The total amount of environmental damage worldwide that is created by individuals purposefully acting malevolently is quite small. The greatest challenge that the younger generation faces are things like climate change where the contribution to the problem are not mens rea crimes. They are not intentional acts to deliberately emit greenhouse gases. They are generally ordinary, lifestyle choices that are made every day to commute to work, to cool or heat a home, to develop economically, or general policy of corporate negligence. All of those are very difficult to fit in the mens rea frame and of course, ecocide carries the term genocide which would then rhetorically at least require to have a very high special intent which would capture a tiny fraction of environmental harm. I think we are much better of thinking creatively about how to deal with climate change and that would not be by creating penal institutions that do not do much work in that area because they cannot. Your generations’ challenge also is to deal with public health atrocities. The percentage of people who deliberately spread COVID is diminutive. COVID is spread through carelessness, ignorance, desperation, poverty. I think your generation’s challenge is to develop institutions that focus on harm as opposed to intent.

6. What can be done to include more feminist voices in the international justice arena?

This is an area in which I find there are discursive gaps. I have last month published a piece along with a colleague, Solange Mouthaan, who is a feminist scholar at University of Warwick. In that piece, we looked at the trial of a woman named Ilse Koch who was a concentration camp guard in World War II. She was prosecuted by an American Military Tribunal and then prosecuted by a West German court. Koch was convicted in both trials and sentenced to life for war crimes by the West German Court and then she committed suicide at the age of 60. This trial to me is illustrative as an answer to your question.

One thing that must happen for a discursive equitable playing field level is that the predominance of paternalistic, patriarchal gender-based tropes involving pejorative narratives become removed from public discourse. Koch’s trial brought forth the gender-based stereotype that she was so evil because any woman who would commit this kind of violence would have to be absolutely sadistic as this is not a ‘womanly act.’ I have seen that in discursive frames about women perpetrators — a sensationalism often arises. In this article, Solange and I also observe another equally wincing gender-based stereotype, which is to say that Koch only did it because of her husband or that her husband made her do that. It is portrayed that the act is solely a result of the patriarchal society and her overbearing husband, not an act of her own. She is presented as helpless.

What I think has to emerge for inclusion for a progressive feminist analysis is that neither of those two tropes become the dominant narrative, because what was completely lost in the Ilse Koch trial was her own real story. How did she come to be who she was? What did she do? Why? And also, what do her victims and survivors have to say about her as a perpetrator? All of that becomes marginalized and occluded through the force of these assumptive stereotypes. To me that is very important and I think that means when one rethinks the history of exclusion of women in post-  conflict reconstruction that a full lens needs to be adopted. A vibrant conversation arises about the role that women played in the Nuremburg Trials or in the post- World War II process of justice. Almost all of that conversation focuses on women who helped, assisted, supported or determined the process or defined the law. One of the biggest omissions in a feminist history of Nuremburg is the discussion of women perpetrators. Solange and I argue in this article that promoting true gender equality means fully recognizing the agency of women in the cataclysm of atrocity and the ensuring social repair.

The second crucial move that I really hope happens is a far more active inclusion of feminist voices from the Global South and a recognition that there is not one feminism. There is not ‘a’ feminist perspective. There are feminisms. I think voices from the Global South in feminist theory and justice are under appreciated and under recognized at the moment. This maps onto another broader theme that I think would really suit international criminal law well and add more candor and more honesty. Greater inclusiveness and sharing in context of people that one listens to may mean accepting ideas that are not exactly the same as what the listener hopes to hear. To me, it is the ultimate form of discursive colonialism when those in power seek to include others only on the condition that what they say matches the expectations of those in power about what the disempowered are supposed to say. I worry about that, too. I know I have shared many worries, and really, I am not a chronic worrier, but the point remains that there cannot be any growth without self-reflection.

The Resistance


I got the bus for a 5:00 am start from New Jersey to the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., a gathering of hundreds of thousands – “Who are we? We’re the popular vote!” – on the Mall. We were ready to show and tell the reasons #WhyIMarch. Some warned to “Respect Existence or Expect Resistance”. Some reminded us that “Environmental Rights Are Women’s Rights and Women’s Rights Are Human Rights”. As Beth observed, they stood up for Islamic and LGBTI communities. They asserted “My Body – My Choice”. There were lots of women – and lots of men (who counter-chanted “Her Body – Her Choice”).


My fellow marchers declared “Water Is Life” and called for “Climate Justice Now”.


The old labor slogan “An Injury to One Is an Injury to All” captured the spirit of this peaceful, cooperative community, pledging ourselves to work for shared values.


IntLawGrrls-pink PussyHats, most knitted by the wearers or their friends, were worn by people of all genders and non-genders.

There were so many of us that we filled the march route and took to other streets so that we could walk.

Updated #s from @dr_pete

Los Angeles: 750K

Washington, DC: 500K

Chicago: 250K

Denver: 200K

New York: 150K+

Seattle: 130K

Boston: 125K

London: 100K

Over and over, as we headed back to the bus for home, strangers smiled, nodded, acknowledged each other and said words to the effect “It was a great day. I’m glad I came. We can’t stop here. We have to keep working on this.”


Good night – sleep well – we have work to do tomorrow, stronger together.