Cover Image for In Conversation: Stop Ecocide Co-Founder Jojo Mehta

In Conversation: Stop Ecocide Co-Founder Jojo Mehta

Anna Ackermann
Issue 1 (2024)

Jojo Mehta is Co-Founder, CEO, and a key spokesperson of Stop Ecocide International, the driving force behind the growing global movement to make ecocide an international crime. She spoke to Anna Ackermann, a policy analyst at the International Institute for Sustainable Development working on the green reconstruction of Ukraine, about the cultural contexts of adding the fifth international crime to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the impact of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on the legal discourse around ecocide, and the significance of the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam for the future of the debate.


Anna Ackermann: Some people might have heard the term ‘ecocide’, some not. Some may be surprised it is still not recognised as a crime. Why do you advocate for the recognition of ecocide as the fifth international crime under the International Criminal Court?

Jojo Mehta: Despite a large and growing body of environmental regulations around the world, they are not proving adequate to slow the levels of destruction that affect not only climate but also arise in different environments from marine ecosystems to deforestation. Conflict is one of the contexts where some of the worst damage happens. At the root, we are facing a profound cultural problem.

The current economic paradigm has grown up around assumptions which we now know to be wrong: that nature will constantly provide for us, that there is an infinite bank of resources, and that we can treat nature as something separate from ourselves. Over the last two to three hundred years, these assumptions have effectively enabled a cultural attitude whereby we do not take the destruction of the environment seriously enough. We end up with this kind of cognitive dissonance where people know that there’s a problem, but they don’t act as if there’s a problem.

One of the things that criminal law is particularly good at doing is drawing moral lines and reshaping moral thinking. So there is a profound cultural driver at the heart of the work but, at the same time, it is practically legal. Of course, Ukraine is exceptional in this respect because it does have some form of ecocide in its legal provision.

Let’s draw a parallel with human rights. If you are campaigning for human rights, it is clear that mass murder and torture are very serious crimes. But there is no equivalent in the environmental space. In the conflict scenario, people don’t tend to think of the environment as a target in and of itself. They tend to think of environmental damage as a sort of unavoidable collateral. In Ukraine, we have seen the weaponisation of environmental damage.

Ultimately, the discounting of the importance of the natural world leads to problems for humanity, because there is a limit to what we can extract and how we can treat nature. Those crimes that exist, which are relatively few, things like illegal logging and wildlife trafficking, are already very lucrative for the criminal community. They are apparently as profitable as drug trafficking, which is up there in the top three categories of organised crime. At the same time, the investigation, reporting, and prosecution of environmental damage is minuscule in comparison.

Effectively, we have this dual goal of creating a genuine concrete legal foundation that can be a container for the bodies of environmental law that exist, while at the same time, creating a shift in consciousness around how seriously we take the environment.

AA: When I looked through the international crimes — there are war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and crimes of aggression — these are things that directly affect human lives and well-being. Why do you think we are culturally not there yet with the environment? How do we make sure we stop treating the environment as separate from us?

JM: We are talking about deep cultural roots that go back centuries, particularly in the Western canon of thinking. You can go right back as far as Plato and you have ideal versus the real; you can go through the many centuries dominated by the Catholic Church and come across the duality of spirit versus body; when you get to the Enlightenment, you move straight into rational versus emotional or human versus nature. Often that thinking goes along with male versus female, so you get the discounting of the feminine and the supremacy of the masculine. It is the same deeply ingrained dualism.

However, in Western countries, there are still rural communities where those different connections are quite deeply felt. They are not very common anymore, but they exist: forms of agriculture that are based on old traditions. In the indigenous cultures, we see it much more clearly. When we look at the areas of biodiversity around the world that have been best maintained, they are often those in the guardianship of indigenous communities; they simply do not make the distinction between humans and nature.

Before we convened the independent expert panel that came up with the international definition of ecocide, we commissioned a public consultation. We had hundreds of responses from academics, interest groups, and individuals, and we also convened a special group of indigenous advisers, one from each continent. What was so striking about how they spoke was that they didn’t use the word ‘nature’. They didn’t describe nature as something other.

What emerged from that consultation in the definition was the addition of the word cultural in the list of resources that are severely damaged by ecocide. There is damage to natural, economic, and cultural resources. And that was the first time that the concept of ‘cultural’ had been used in that kind of context. The lawyers wanted to be able to capture the sort of damage that happened when a mining company in Australia destroyed part of the landscape that was sacred to the Aboriginal people of that area. Widespread and long-term harm [present in the definition of ecocide] might not have hit the legal threshold, but the cultural significance of it did.

There’s this kind of detachment where our legal system sits. It floats above the reality of the natural world. A lot of it is based on property and ownership. It’s also based on damage to people. But the connection isn’t made between the damage to people and the damage to the land and the environment. Some lawyers and advocates talk about how bringing ecocide into the spectrum of international crimes is about bringing an ecocentric focus. The proposed definition of ecocide doesn’t require human harm in order to be applied, but of course, it does all relate to humans. What’s happening now is that the human rights community is starting to get engaged in the ecocide discussion. And for example, High Commissioner Volker Türk has quite vocally come out in favour of criminalising ecocide.

AA: Perhaps you could talk about how the discourse itself looked before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Was there a before and after moment? How did the discourse change, if at all?

JM: There was definitely a shift. One of the reasons that this conversation is moving quite fast is that it is very specific and nonpartisan and doesn’t take sides. If there is massive damage to the environment, that shouldn’t be happening. End of story. So we didn’t get involved in the Ukraine context until the word ‘ecocide’ started to be used publicly. It was also included in Zelensky’s peace formula. So even before the Kakhovka Dam incident, the concept was already being talked about by Ukraine. I personally attended the United for Justice conference in March 2023, along with legal associates of yours. If you were there, you’ll remember there was a session dedicated to environmental damage and the potential of a law of ecocide in that context.

And then, when the Kakhovka Dam destruction happened, that was huge news. And it was very clearly described from the Ukrainian side as an ecocide. In terms of the word, it had a huge momentum-gathering force. So it is the case that it did give additional attention to the conversation, and brought in that whole aspect that people perhaps had not been focusing on so much.

As you probably know, we have been working with the Pacific island state of Vanuatu for a long time. They were the first state to publicly call for a crime of ecocide. What we find interesting about Vanuatu and Ukraine is that, in both cases, these are victim states. They are those suffering from damage that was not of their own making.

One of the things that Ukraine and Vanuatu in the climate context have done is they have gone beyond ‘look what we are suffering, we need assistance’ to basically say ‘we don’t want to see anyone suffer what we have suffered’. I have concretely felt this as a form of political generosity. From Ukraine, there is this combination of messages: ‘we need to make Russia pay’ and ‘there ought to be something legal in place that can adequately deal with these kinds of contexts’.

What we are finding is that the two biggest problems the world faces, climate breakdown and conflict, come together at the same legal gap. Ecocide law is this conspicuously missing parameter that is equally important in both of those contexts. The Kakhovka Dam incident has brought that into sharp focus.

AA: Do you remember your immediate reaction to the Kakhovka Dam destruction? For people working on the environment, it was the same shock as when Russia’s full-scale invasion started. Do you remember how it affected your work straightaway? How did the international community react?

JM: I think it was a key marker point, one of those moments when you know that you are not going to forget it. It was the day after the ecocide law proposal was put to the Brazilian parliament, which was on 5 June.

Even just talking about ecocide becoming a crime has specific connotations, because when you say the word ‘crime’, people think of someone running down a dark alley with a knife. But we see criminal law ultimately as protective law. It is what keeps us safe. It is what deals with the parameters of what is dangerous and what is not, what is acceptable and what is not. What that means is that you are talking about the awful things in the same breath as you are talking about the solution.

The footage and images coming in from Ukraine were just horrific. The destruction of the Kakhovka Dam was on a scale that Europe had not seen at any time in recent memory. It had that shock effect. I hope that’s not upsetting to hear.

AA: Absolutely not. We could be sitting and crying when it happened, but we were receiving calls from journalists, and we had to respond. We knew that Russia had to pay, so we just kept going. For us, it was also an opportunity to shed light on the immense damage that has been happening already for years.

JM: I think the other thing about the Kakhovka incident is that it was a single act. It could be a textbook ecocide case because, with criminal law, you have to be able to take it down to a particular action that a particular person did.

AA: From the moment the Kakhovka Dam was destroyed, what kind of developments have you seen in the international community’s response, particularly, in terms of the ecocide initiative?

JM: There has been an opening up of the conversation, particularly in Europe. It made a fundamental difference to the attention that governments were willing to pay to the criminal aspects of environmental damage. It was something so severe, with a clear origin: a particular thing had to be destroyed for the damage to happen.

AA: There were recently a few important decisions taken by the EU and some European countries to criminalise environmental damage. How does the legal landscape look today with all of these different groups picking up this problem?

JM: The developments in the EU were already well underway. There were already teams at the European Parliament working on getting the EU to recognise ecocide. The Kakhovka Dam made it much more real for people, I guess. In November, the Parliament, the Commission and the Council reached an agreement in the trialogue discussions where they have included ecocide-level crimes in the revision of the environmental crimes directive. I would say that it has been a major milestone.

What we have also seen over the last year are proposals of law in several different countries, including some in Europe. There was an ecocide law proposed in Italy as well as one in Spain, at least at the regional level, but if that moves forward, it will go up to the federal level. There is also a law being proposed in the UK. There has been a proposal put forward in the Netherlands. Except for Brazil, all of those developments took place after the Kakhovka incident. Beyond Europe, it is Brazil and Mexico. Chile has passed a law that addresses not exactly ecocide but has some of its elements. So there are quite a lot of ongoing developments. I don’t think they are all directly related to what has been happening in Ukraine, but the European ones will have been influenced by that.

AA: We are all the time talking about how Ukraine, a democratic country, is now facing a non-democratic country which just does not respect any international laws. But funnily enough, Russia also has ecocide in its constitution, doesn’t it?

JM: Yes, it does. And in fact, most of the countries that already have some provisions are ex-Soviet countries. This is probably because the drafting of the code on the Peace and Security of Mankind in the 90s, which became the Rome Statute, coincided with the breakup of the Soviet Union and different countries establishing their new national jurisdictions. There was a clause in the draft at the time that addressed severe, widespread and long-term harm to the environment. However, it did not make the final treaty in 1998 and did not end up in the Rome Statute. We believe that when those separate national jurisdictions were being established, the inspiration was taken from that draft code.

AA: So if the goal for democratic countries is to be more conscious and to respect the environment, how do all the democracies globally adopt the same path? How do we establish universality? Should there be an internationally recognised methodology for assessing environmental damage?

JM: What has been a positive indicator from our perspective is that when we started — and we always had this aim of making ecocide an international crime — we thought that advocating it at the national or regional level would be a distraction and what we would end up with would be potentially several different piecemeal campaigns with different definitions.

We’ve spoken with a particular academic who is focused on the genesis of other international crimes. And what she pointed out was that with our panel on the definition of ecocide, we did the reverse of what has happened previously (countries get together and spend ages deciding what the definition is, and then eventually it somehow ends up being acknowledged). What we did was the opposite. We provided the definition first, and that catalysed all of the developments in different countries.

The experience of ministers and government-level processes is that everybody is always so busy dealing with the day-to-day running of their countries. I am surmising to some extent that, while there may be many people who are concerned at the government level about the environment, they simply do not have the resources, the time, or the connections to draw up a text or start the conversation. And that is exactly the place that the proposed definition fell into.

Having a credible and authoritative definition that emerged from a genuine consensus process helped. Although I can’t answer your question fully as to how to universalise these developments, the route that we have taken turns out to have galvanised exactly that kind of direction.

AA: From that perspective, how are you planning to move forward this year?

JM: At the International Criminal Court, what we aim to do is to advise, encourage, and facilitate the coming together of initially an informal group of states that are interested in potentially putting an amendment on the table. Exactly when that will happen is a bit of a ‘how long is a piece of string’. But since the European developments, the framing is ‘how is this going to happen’ rather than ‘is it going to happen’. So, I think we’re going to see quite a lot of movement this year in the context of the International Criminal Court.

AA: And in there, there is a question about the role of Ukraine. We are pioneering and launching global initiatives. But it is interesting to see if you think Ukraine can play a larger part than that.

JM: It already does. We have had contributions from Ukraine to meetings in New York, in the context of the UN. That makes a concrete difference because it brings the aspect of the armed conflict into the conversation. Kakhovka comes up every time. Ukraine has been very vocal about using the term ecocide, and driving those resolutions in the Council of Europe. We have met a couple of times with Yuliia Ovchynnykova [Ukrainian MP who joined the International Parliamentary Alliance for Recognition of Ecocide], and she spoke in a number of our events. And of course, at the Assembly of the International Criminal Court last year, there were two events on ecocide. We had two Truth Hounds speakers [Ukrainian NGO investigating war crimes] at our event as well as at a joint one Ukraine, Romania, and Estonia did around ecocide. So there’s already been quite a lot of cross-feeding at that level. It would be ideal if Ukraine were a full member of the International Criminal Court, which it is not at the moment.

AA: In your experience, how do climate and environment debates merge? In the Ukrainian context, climate damage from the war is calculated separately by a group of independent experts, and it’s still not clear if this should be a part of the same story, or if the approaches for climate and environment should be different.

JJ: We find that people tend to relate more directly to ecocide in the non-climate context, such as direct destruction and direct pollution. In terms of a crime, you are aiming for situations where there is a clear cause, whether a particular person or act has caused the damage. What we would fully expect is that, once the law is in place — and this is being demonstrated already with the cases being built in Ukraine — very particular and visible, and data-gatherable incidents will be the ones that are used as first cases. I can guarantee there are a lot of lawyers who are keen to get their teeth into prosecuting ecocide. They will want the initial case law to build up in a usable, clear pathway. The Kakhovka Dam would be a case in point.


Image: Kateryna Aliinyk, from the specially commissioned Fruits We Did Not Know series, 2024.

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