A man holds out his hands in front of evidence of logging.

Alexander Dounchev inspects forest clearing on Vitosha mountain for illegal logging on March 9, 2023, in Sofia, Bulgaria.

(Photo: Hristo Rusev/Getty Images)

EU to Criminalize Acts 'Comparable to Ecocide'

"With this agreement, the European Union adopts some of the most ambitious legislation in the world," one MEP who backed the measure said.

In what one proponent called a "fundamental victory," the European Union agreed late Thursday to set new penalties for acts of environmental destruction "comparable to ecocide."

The update to an E.U. directive, which targets wide-scale actions like habitat destruction and illegal logging, makes the bloc the first multinational group to criminalize these acts, The Guardian reported.

"Environmental crime is exploding around the world, it is now considered just as lucrative as drug trafficking, and is helping to destroy living conditions on Earth," Marie Toussaint, a French lawyer and member of European Parliament who helped steer the negotiations, said in a statement. "With this agreement, the European Union adopts some of the most ambitious legislation in the world. We will continue to fight so that we can never again harm living things in the name of profit."

"Our health depends on the state of the environment in which we live, so we must deter criminals willing to destroy ecosystems for profit."

The new offense comes in the wake of a growing movement to have ecocide recognized as an international crime. The original call from the Stop Ecocide Foundation was for it to be added to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court on equal footing with genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. In 2021, the group assembled legal experts to draft a definition, which has generated interest on the national level as well. Bills have been introduced in Belgium, Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands.

"We're one step closer to stopping the destruction of our planet," Giulio Carini, communications manager at WeMove Europe, said in a statement Friday. "With today's proposal we've secured a text that paves the way to ensure we can protect nature through criminal law. This progress is a result of people-powered pressure—after more than 600,000 people across Europe have asked the E.U. to make ecocide a crime."

Thursday's agreement comes after the European Parliament's Legal Affairs Committee unanimously proposed in March that "member states shall ensure that any conduct causing severe and either widespread or long-term or irreversible damage shall be treated as an offense of particular gravity and sanctioned as such in accordance with the legal systems of the member states."

This then led to months of negotiations between the parliament, the European Council, and the European Commission that have resulted in the decision to update the "directive on protection of the environment through criminal law" to include new penalties for especially devastating environmental harms.

"We are thrilled to see this result," Jojo Mehta, co-founder and CEO of Stop Ecocide International, said in a statement. "The approved text is a hugely important step and a massive win for nature, significantly strengthening environmental protection through criminal law throughout the E.U."

The actions singled out by the text include destroying the ozone layer, introducing or spreading invasive species, water abstraction, and shipping pollution and recycling, The Guardian reported. The agreement does not mention carbon credit scams, fishing, or exporting dangerous waste to developing countries. It also does not cover crimes committed by E.U. companies abroad, though individual states may chose to penalize them.

The updated directive could also penalize permitted activities if those permits were acquired through bribes, falsehoods, or threats, or violated legal agreements. Penalties include prison time for individuals or barring companies from receiving public funds in the future. E.U. countries can also chose to fine companies with a set amount of up to €40 million Euros ($43.6 million) or up to 5% of their income.

"Our health depends on the state of the environment in which we live, so we must deter criminals willing to destroy ecosystems for profit," said Virginijus Sinkevičius, E.U. commissioner for environment, oceans, and fisheries, as The Guardian reported.

The E.U. will officially pass the new directive in the spring of 2024, after which member states have two years to enshrine it in their own legal codes.

"This is highly significant and to be wholeheartedly commended, and we can see from the rapidly growing momentum of the ecocide law initiative that European states will not be long in engaging more deeply with it in their own jurisdictions," Mehta said. "Indeed, I have no doubt that with this direction of travel being rapidly established, it is only a matter of time before ecocide is recognized in criminal law at every level."

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