Rio+20 & Beyond: Ecocide & the key to triggering the green economy

Polly Higgins
Wednesday, 20th June 2012

Polly Higgins explains why Rio+20 needs to adopt the law of Ecocide internationally and why it can a powerful mechanism to transform our global economy and create a green revolution.

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development takes place 20 – 22 June 2012 in Rio de Janeiro. It is also referred to as Earth Summit 2012 or Rio+20 due to the initial conference held in Rio in 1992. The objectives are to secure renewed political commitment to sustainable development, assess progress towards internationally agreed goals on sustainable development and to address new and emerging challenges.

The Rio Earth Summit 1992 was the largest environmental conference ever held and was a watershed in terms of the growing influence of global civil society. Its aim was to find ways to halt the destruction of irreplaceable natural resources and tackle pollution of the planet. It was attended by over 170 governments and more than 2,000 representatives from non-government organisations (NGO's). The Summit resulted in two international agreements, two statements of principles and an action agenda on worldwide sustainable development:

 The Convention on Biological Diversity
 The Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC)
 The Principles for the Sustainable Management of Forests
 The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development
 Agenda 21 (the UN's programme of action from Rio).

Twenty years on the UN is again bringing together world leaders and thousands of participants from governments, the private sector, NGO's and other groups to attempt to define pathways to a safer, more equitable, cleaner, greener and more prosperous world for all. In planning for the conference seven areas have been highlighted that need priority attention: decent jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, oceans and disaster readiness.

Rio+20 is both a conference and a summit that UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon has described as a "once in a life-time opportunity".
Whether this event, coming 20 years after the historic Rio Earth Summit of 1992, delivers transformational change will depend on governments.


World leaders gathering at the Earth Summit in Rio and discuss ways of protecting the planet. What needs to be top of the agenda is a law against Ecocide.

 Ecocide is the significant destruction of ecosystems and environments. It occurs both naturally, for example during a tsunami, and is also caused by humans, such as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. It is the latter of these two that we can, and must control.

The way I propose ending human-caused ecocide is to make ecocide the Fifth International Crime Against Peace. To make this happen we need to make an amendment to the Rome Statute and to do this we need a courageous, forward-thinking leader to stand up and call for a law of Ecocide at the Earth Summit. We need visionary leaders that understand that without an environment there is no government, no business, no economic recovery, and no society

It is now a time for wisdom, and it's a time for ideas. And it will take big ideas and bold actions to prevent the collapse of our environment. A law of Ecocide acts as a preventative 'think before you act' mechanism which stops business causing ecocide. CEOs, Heads of State and shareholders will be forced to reassess their involvement in dangerous industrial activity that will now be considered criminal.

It is already an international crime to cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment during wartime. Legal definitions of what constitutes mass damage and destruction in war time are already in place. There is already a piece of legal hardware which sets out the four core international crimes and the International Criminal Court can prosecute these. Governments now need to take up the cause and call for a law of Ecocide. 


We need ethical and brave business leaders to demand changes as well. A law against Ecocide will allow businesses to go head on into the green economy knowing that that is the future of business. As it is now, visionary businesses are hampered in becoming greener by the fact that other businesses will find ways of doing business cheaper, but at the expense of our environment and the people who depend on that environment. As Richard Branson says, the future of entrepreneurship belongs to business that put people and planet before profit.

We need to give businesses that want to close the door to dangerous industrial activity the legal framework they need to go green and still remain competitive. We need a level playing field to allow businesses to be truly sustainable.

Crucially, we can't let our short-term economic troubles make us ignore our environmental troubles. They are one and the same. Let's use this current economic crisis as an opportunity to alter the way we do business and how we treat the environment forever.

Now more than ever a switch to the green economy is needed. This new economy will help us solve the economic troubles the world now faces. We can't go back to business as usual, Earth must be our business from now on. With the climate moving ever closer to inevitable collapse, laws that make the switch to the green economy inevitable, are essential.

I ask you to join in the movement to bring about this change. Call on business and government to take action. Demand that they support a law of Ecocide which will trigger the business revolution that we so desperately need.

A better, healthier world is just around the corner, we just need to put the laws in place that will make the green revolution happen. The Earth Summit in Rio gives us a chance to do just this.