The Earth needs a good lawyer

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The Earth needs a good lawyer

by Brian Loffler


NASA Goddard Space Flight (under a Creative Commons Licence)

Sometimes things happen that change the world; for example in 1833 when the British Parliament finally stopped slavery. Then, people were fighting for Human Rights. Now, in our lifetime, Polly Higgins is fighting for the Rights of the Earth. I spoke to Polly Higgins this week to find out what is happening.

Brian: We always really want to know what motivates people; how and why did you start to be an activist?

Polly: When I was a student, I met the Austrian artist and ecologist Hundertwasser. He was a big part of my life then. I went to Austria to interview him for my Master’s thesis. He was an early ecological thinker. He said trees have rights; nature has no straight lines, so architecture shouldn’t.

But what do you think he would think about the idea of a global law for the Earth? He was against the European Union and all global legal frameworks.

That’s true. But he had a very large view of nature and the need to protect the Earth. He was worried that all cultures could become the same. He wanted to show the wisdom that indigenous cultures have.

Ten years ago you were a regular lawyer in the British court system, but that’s all changed. Why is that?

In 2005 I was representing a man with a serious workplace injury. There was a moment of silence while we were waiting for the judges, and I looked out the window and thought: ‘The Earth has been badly injured and harmed too, and something needs to be done about that.’ My next thought changed my life: ‘The Earth needs a good lawyer, too.’ When I looked around to see how I could defend the Earth in court, I saw that it was impossible. But what if the earth had rights like we as humans have rights? We have international laws that make killing people a crime. So we could make “ecocide” (the destruction of the earth) a crime too.

Are there any laws now against ecocide?

There was a lot of destruction of the environment in Vietnam during the war years, so they made a national ecocide law in 1990. The USSR also had ecocide laws, so after the end of the USSR, many of the new countries kept these laws. But ecological destruction goes across national boundaries; it is often very large multinational companies that cause it; so we need an international law.

In your research you found that the UN had been thinking about introducing a crime against nature for decades. What went wrong?

Before the Rome Statute (leading to the International Criminal Court), they planned five central international crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, crimes of aggression and ecocide. But many countries fought against this – particularly the US, Britain, Netherlands and France – so they cut ecocide.

Is there a chance to bring back an ecocide law?

The Rome Statute can be reviewed in 2015, so it is important now to fight to change it. 122 nations – including Australia – sign the Rome Statute. So one head of state needs to ask for a change. There could then be a five-year transitional period and the law could be working in 2020.

People who are against the ecocide campaign say that climate change is the biggest environmental challenge. But there is not one criminal we can punish for it. They would have to punish everyone.

That’s why the ecocide law is so good. The law doesn’t have to accept the theory that humans cause climate change. It looks at it holistically. Climate change is a symptom of damage to our ecosystems. The important thing is to create a criminal law that will stop dangerous industrial activity. And that’s where the ecocide laws will help. At the moment, big companies that damage the environment simply pay a fine, and they are prepared for this. But if ecocide is a law enforced by the International Criminal Court, that would be very different. The people at the top who make decisions go to a criminal court of law. That includes corporate CEOs, heads of state, regional premiers and heads of financial institutions.

You say this will bring a big change, and that there would be a dramatic improvement in looking after the environment. But big companies have very big teams of very good lawyers, too. Are you confident that these cases could be won? Or do you think the ecocide laws would simply stop the destruction?

There is an important difference between civil and criminal law – good lawyers will not help if the evidence shows destruction. It’s much more difficult to say that ecocide did not happen if you have proof: data, visual evidence and research that demonstrates ecocide than, for example, a crime of theft.

Some people say you do not support development.

That’s not true. I want to make a legal framework that makes the heads of multinational companies part of the team that protects our ecosystems. Now, the most important thing legally is for businesses to make a lot of money for shareholders. Now we say ‘this must stop’. Destroying the earth is bad for humans, nature and business.

Will the new law prosecute crimes in the past?

No – that is not fair. It is important is to help companies to change. That is why I suggest a five-year transition period.

So what can we do about people who are already suffering the effects of ecocide in the past?

There is a second type of ecocide in the changes I propose that is equally important and very powerful – a legal responsibility to care for natural ecocide. Island nations and countries like Bangladesh are being severely threatened by rising sea levels and worse storms. But when they ask international community for help, they say: ‘It’s not our responsibility.’ But the ecocide provision means the international community must help.

Is there something people can do to help?

Yes, for sure. Give your time, energy and/or some money!

Find out more at

like “Ecocide is a crime” on Facebook

and watch this video: Polly Higgins – TEDx Exeter:

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