Amendment 126

Environment Bill - Report (4th Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 10:15 pm on 15th September 2021.

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Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle:

Moved by Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle

126: After Clause 136, insert the following new Clause—“Ecocide(1) It is an objective of Her Majesty’s Government to support the negotiation of an amendment to the Statute of the International Criminal Court, done at Rome on 17th July 1998, to establish a crime of ecocide.(2) In pursuance of subsection (1), a relevant Minister of the Crown must promote discussion of such an amendment, either independently or jointly with other sovereign states, within the Working Group on Amendments of the International Criminal Court within 12 months of this Act being passed.(3) In this section “ecocide” refers to unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts.”

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Boycott, Lady Whitaker, and Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, for offering their support to Amendment 126, on ecocide. A number of other Members of your Lordships’ House would have brought extra cross-party support to this amendment if there had been space.

I have been asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, one of your Lordships’ House’s foremost advocates of human rights, to share, with your Lordships’ permission, a few words from her. She wished to say: “Criminal offences are not to be created lightly, and I have resisted so many, but the repercussions of ecocide go way beyond those of most criminal acts. The emergency demands this measure, as should our grandchildren.”

Returning to the discussion in Committee, noble Lords will remember that I moved two amendments, one of which called on the Government explicitly to back the creation of ecocide as an offence under the Rome statute, to join other crimes against humanity. The other called for the creation of a domestic offence of ecocide. Noble Lords will have noted that what has come before us on Report is a very much softer amendment. Proposed new subsection (2) of the amendment calls on the relevant Minister of the Crown to

“promote discussion of such an amendment, either independently or jointly with other sovereign states, within the Working Group on Amendments of the International Criminal Court within 12 months of this Act being passed.”

This is a call for the Government to make it a commitment to promote debate—a very moderate step forward into something where many other nations are already leading. If the UK wishes to be world leading, as it so often claims to be, it surely should be in this debate, particularly given the UK’s long-term heritage of involvement in leading on human rights issues through many decades.

I hope the Minister will agree that international law has a key role to play in transforming our relationship with the natural world by shifting it from one of harm to harmony. Despite significant progress, the clear inadequacies of environmental governance at a global scale are widely acknowledged. There are laws that are supposed to protect our natural systems, but they are clearly inadequate and failing.

I referred to the international discussion already ongoing. Thirteen member states of the ICC are having discussions at a parliamentary or government level. Two states, Vanuatu and the Maldives, have officially called on member states of the ICC to consider amending the Rome statute. As we discussed in Committee, a consensus on the definition of ecocide was reached in June. This is the definition referred to in proposed subsection (3) of the amendment.

It really is a great pity that the nature of the arrangements in your Lordships’ House make it impossible for me to test the opinion of the House tonight. I formally give notice that I am not planning to do that. I also think it is a great pity that that is clearly restricting our debate tonight, and I have restricted what I was planning to say in the interests of the hour. I hope we will hear from the Minister the strongest possible words acknowledging that this is a crucial issue. This is absolutely foundational for the future of our world. It should be a fundamental part of the Bill. With those words, I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Boycott Baroness Boycott Crossbench 10:30 pm, 15th September 2021

My Lords, I am very pleased to support this amendment. It is very late so I want to say that this would become the fifth offence that the ICC would prosecute. I will quote the words of my friend Philippe Sands, who has co-chaired the panel. He says:

“The four other crimes all focus exclusively on the wellbeing of human beings. This one of course does that but it introduces a new non-anthropocentric approach, namely putting the environment at the heart of international law, and so that is original and innovative.

For me the single most important thing about this initiative is that it’s part of that broader process of changing public consciousness, recognising that we are in a relationship with our environment, we are dependent for our wellbeing on the wellbeing of the environment and that we have to use various instruments, political, diplomatic but also legal to achieve the protection of the environment.”

I certainly believe that it sits alongside the other four crimes because the environment takes life, takes livelihoods and takes away our future.

Photo of Baroness Whitaker Baroness Whitaker Labour

My Lords, it is late and I have little to add to the excellent introduction to Amendment 126 from the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and the important perceptions of the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott. The noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, did not give the impression of having any substantive objection to the proposal when it was mooted in Committee, just that there was no international consensus for it when it was last discussed, when the ICC was created. First, the world has moved on since then, and we are all more aware of the immense importance of biodiversity in averting the worst effects of climate change.

Secondly, we have very good diplomats, whose job is to build consensus. They should be tasked to make a start on this case. We need to make a good showing at Glasgow, do we not? A start on the process of securing agreement to this provision would give us a leading position.

Lastly, I see from the very good briefing provided by Peers for the Planet that my late husband is credited with supporting this idea, in 1985. I am not sure that he confided this to me at the time, but it is a poignant and happy reminder of how much we agreed on. I am proud to continue in the family tradition.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Liberal Democrat Shadow Attorney General

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and other noble Lords who signed this amendment, for bringing forward the interesting concept of ecocide. I am sorry that I missed the debate in Committee.

It was the use by the United States of Agent Orange as a means of destroying the Viet Cong’s forest cover in northern Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos which brought to the attention of the international community the devastating environmental harm that it causes and the ensuing refugee crisis. When Saddam Hussein burned 600 Kuwaiti oil wells, the resultant atmospheric pollution spread as far as the Himalayas and caused a severe threat to the surrounding fragile desert ecosystem. There have been many other examples of armed conflict causing environmental destruction.

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court deals with the four core crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression. Article 8(2)(b)(iv) of the statute specifies that, within the scope of international armed conflict, the following actions could constitute a war crime:

“Intentionally launching an attack in the knowledge that such attack will cause … widespread, long-term and severe damage to the … environment which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated”.

As part of the review of the genocide convention in 1973, a draft international convention on the crime of ecocide was prepared for UN consideration by Professor Richard Falk. He outlined an offence, including the use of chemical herbicides to defoliate and deforest natural forests for military purposes and the use of bulldozing equipment to destroy large tracts of forest or crop-land. This was all within the concept of military conflict. Of course, it is a precondition of a war crime that there is a war, or at least armed conflict, and that there is a commander who can be made responsible for his conduct. This amendment might be appropriately considered as a military offence in the Armed Forces Bill currently before the House. But I suspect that the noble Baroness is more ambitious and would wish to include in her definition of ecocide deliberate destruction of the environment outside a war setting.

The problem then becomes twofold. What is the actus reus and what is the mens rea? If President Bolsonaro were to decide, as a matter of policy, to destroy the rainforest to increase open grazing land for cattle, he does not do so merely out of a malign desire to destroy but with the intention of increasing the economic prosperity of his country. He may be right, or he may be completely mistaken, but has he caused widespread, long-term and severe damage to the environment which is clearly excessive in relation to the economic advantage anticipated? Would a court question his political decision?

To bring the matter nearer to home, if Prime Minister Boris Johnson or Nicola Sturgeon were to agree to the exploitation of the new Shetland oil field, many would argue, including me, that it would do immense damage to the environment and contribute significantly to climate change. Even if the members of the International Criminal Court agreed with that assessment, they are hardly likely to lock up the Prime Minister or the First Minister of Scotland.

Rachel Killean, of Queen’s University Belfast, has thoughtfully gone in a different direction. She seeks to develop the concept of a separate chamber of the ICC with a jurisdiction to deal with environmental destruction. She believes in “‘greening’ the Rome Statute” and argues that

“the reparation framework adopted by the International Criminal Court” for war crimes—the payment of compensation—

“offers an opportunity to … respond to environmental destruction”.

She postulates that the court could have jurisdiction in respect of states as well as individual politicians, and could award

“reparations that explicitly recognise the harm caused by environmental destruction”.

It would be difficult to expand the jurisdiction of the court from its existing concern with genocide and war crimes—

Photo of Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, forgive me for interrupting, but I fear the noble Lord is making a Second Reading speech. He was not here for earlier stages of the Bill, and the hour is late. Perhaps he could bring his arguments to a close.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Liberal Democrat Shadow Attorney General

I have one sentence further.

The pressure of climate change and its effect on world populations will give the concept much more resonance. Ecocide may lead to genocide. Wanton destruction of habitat, as in Myanmar, causes a flood of refugees, and that is a crime against humanity. I look forward to further developments in the future.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Chair, Consolidation, &c., Bills (Joint Committee), Chair, Consolidation, &c., Bills (Joint Committee)

My Lords, I will make a few points, which can be very briefly made. The first is to commend the Minister on his acceptance of the two base problems: first, that ecocide is a serious crime; and, secondly, that it is not dealt with effectively.

There are, in turn, two solutions. The first is a model law; we are not on that tonight, so I need say nothing about it. The second is the ICC, and on the ICC there are again two points. First, the Minister said on the last occasion that reform of procedure is needed. I agree, but reform of procedure can go hand in hand with a reform of substantive law. We do it in this country all the time, as they do in almost every other country. If you left procedural reform as a precondition of moving forward substantive law, no country would ever reform its law.

The second point relates to whether it is worth the effort. On the last occasion, the Minister cast doubt on whether there was sufficient wind behind this for it to be worth investing in. From my experience of what is happening on the continent of Europe, I say there is a very significant movement in favour of doing something about ecocide. I very much hope that the Foreign Office will now show a bit more leadership on that count.

That takes me to my last two points, on leadership. First, this must be an opportunity for global Britain to show leadership on one of the most serious criminal offences of our time. We can do it, and we should not fail. Secondly, on the last occasion the Minister kindly agreed to refer these technical legal points to the Law Commission. I will not go into one single technical legal point at this hour of the night; I know it would be greatly welcomed by some but, I am sure, entirely deprecated by almost everyone else. I therefore wish to say that we in this country have always shown leadership in the law. The Law Commission is an outstanding body, and I hope it can be given the opportunity, by what the Minister said on the last occasion, to show leadership by dealing with the technical difficulties and showing that we can come up with a solution both to procedure and substantive law that would be broadly accepted across the world. If I may say so, I commend the Minister on the huge work he has done on this. It just needs a little push more, and we will be back in the leadership on such a vital point.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 10:45 pm, 15th September 2021

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for tabling this amendment and for her very comprehensive introduction. We had an interesting discussion on ecocide in Committee following the amendment then tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and we have done so again today. As the noble Baroness and others have clearly laid out the arguments on this issue, I do not intend to give a lengthy speech; the hour is late.

In her amendment today, the noble Baroness asks the Government to set an objective

“to support the negotiation of an amendment to the Statute of the International Criminal Court … to establish a crime of ecocide.”

In Committee, the Minister said that he strongly agreed “with the premise” of the noble Baroness’s argument. My noble friend Lady Whitaker has noted that he did not seem to really have any strong objections to the proposals. This was then caveated when the Minister said that pursuing this course of action

“would require an enormous amount of heavy lifting diplomatically, with little prospect at this stage of succeeding.”—[Official Report, 14/7/21; col. 1905.]

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, stressed the importance of leadership in this aspect, and I hope that the Minister would agree with him and, as he says, push it a little further. My noble friend Lord Khan, in his response in Committee, called for a “constructive role” for the UK in negotiation and this would be a positive first step.

As the noble Baroness explained in the introduction to her amendment, unlike her amendment in Committee, she is calling for the Government to promote discussion of this. This seems to me to be a thoroughly reasonable request and so, with COP 26 on the horizon and the opportunity it presents the UK for global leadership on the climate and ecological crisis, I ask the Minister—who we know understands the reality of ecocide—to end this debate on a positive note and give the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, some hope in this matter.

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and Stop Ecocide International for agreeing to a meeting following Committee stage of the Bill. I found the debate we had in Committee and the subsequent engagement hugely insightful. As the noble Baroness knows and as I have made clear in my contribution during that debate, I very strongly agree with the premise of her argument.

As she knows, ecocide is not a crime recognised under international law and there is currently no consensus on a legal definition. Before the ICC and the crimes it has jurisdiction over could be established by the Rome statute adopted in 1998, ecocide had to be removed in the drafting stages because of the lack of agreement among states parties to the court. The Rome statute provides some protections to the natural environment in armed conflict. It designates international attacks that knowingly and excessively cause widespread, long term, and severe damage to the natural environment as a war crime. But ecocide in the broader sense, in the manner in which the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, described it, as an internationally punishable crime, has not yet been recognised by the United Nations.

The UK’s current priority regarding the International Criminal Court, as I said in Committee, is to reform it so that it functions better and can deliver successful prosecutions of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. I know noble Lords on all sides of the House share that ambition. As I understand it, if an amendment to the statute was adopted, it would only bind states parties which have ratified it. If not ratified, the court has no jurisdiction over those states. It is likely, and certainly possible, therefore, that the biggest culprits in relation to ecocide and egregious environmental damage would be exempt.

However, reform of the court is a long and complicated process. The independent expert review of the court made over 300 recommendations to improve the workings of the court, some of them fundamental. It will take time to implement these recommendations and that is a priority not just for the UK but many other states parties to the Rome statute. A significant amendment such as that proposed is currently unlikely to achieve the support of two-thirds of the states parties necessary to amend the Rome statute to make ecocide an international crime. As I said in Committee, pursuing it would require enormous heavy lifting on our part, with—at this stage—little prospect of success. There is a concern it could detract from the goal of improving the court’s effectiveness, which in any case would be a prerequisite for a meaningful application of ecocide.

Although I am afraid that I cannot commit here and now to promoting this campaign or concept internationally, I very much share the noble Baroness’s interest in this area, as she knows. I cannot take action as part of this Environment Bill but I am keen to continue discussions with the noble Baroness on how she and others believe the UK, through these international channels, can better lead in recognising and tackling egregious environmental crimes. In the meantime, I very much hope she will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate and I thank the Minister for his response. It is probably rare that we have seen such quality and intensity of debate on an amendment at this time of the evening, and I sincerely thank everyone who has contributed to that. I particularly thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Boycott and Lady Whitaker, who have been my stalwart supporters throughout this debate. It was wonderful to hear from the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, about her long family connection to this campaign.

That ties in with the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, who outlined the long-term history of the development of this concept. I am not going fully to engage in the legal issues and the questions that he raised, given the hour, but I will point out that the definition of ecocide in subsection (3) of the amendment was developed after a long process involving a distinguished panel of jurists, of whom Philippe Sands—a name well-known to many Members of your Lordships’ House—was co-chair. The interesting approach of holding states responsible is something I will certainly look into further.

I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, who also engaged on this issue in Committee. The point that he made—that reform of procedure can go hand in hand with legal reform—very much answers one of the points made by the Minister. The noble and learned Lord pointed out that there is significant momentum in continental Europe. I would also point out that there is significant momentum within the UK, in Scotland. Indeed, a briefing was held there in the last few days with wide parliamentary engagement, so I come back to the point about this Parliament really needing to catch up.

The point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, was significant. The Minister, in Committee and again tonight, repeated the suggestion that this would involve enormous heavy lifting and would require lots of resources from the UK Government in order to make progress. The amendment does not ask the Government to pursue a drive for the creation of the crime; it asks them to promote a continuation of the discussion. I do not believe the phrase “enormous heavy lifting” is an appropriate label for the promotion of discussion.

Before I conclude, I want to pick up on what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, said about the Law Commission. That issue was also raised in Committee and I do not think we have had an answer from the Minister in either of those discussions. There was a commitment to refer to the Law Commission. Can the Minister inform me now of progress on that, or at least commit to writing to me as progress is made on reference to the Law Commission?

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

With the noble Baroness’s permission, I will make a commitment to the second of her suggestions. I will write to her and continue this discussion.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

I thank the Minister for his response. It is with regret, and a feeling that we really are delaying while the planet burns, that I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 126 withdrawn.