Damaging the environment should be a criminal offence – French citizens’ assembly

Damaging the environment could be a criminal offence in France after a citizens’ assembly voted to include criminalising ‘ecocide’ in its recommendations for the government.

The Citizens’ Convention on Climate (CCC) is part of France’s latest democratic experiment, drawn up in the wake of the gilet jaunes movement, to give people the power to set President Emmanuel Macron’s policy on cutting carbon emissions.

Macron has vowed these policies, put forward by a group of 150 randomly selected people aged 16-80, will be put to parliament “unfiltered”, transformed into executive decrees or even used as the basis for a referendum.

At the forefront of these proposals for combatting the climate crisis was a suggestion to make ‘ecocide’, or extensive damage to ecosystems, an offence punishable by law. A bill featuring similar measures to make “the serious and lasting damage to the environment” a crime was rejected by the French Senate in 2019.

Making ecocide illegal would make those who play any part in a defined level of destruction of the natural world, like chief executives and government ministers, criminally liable. The crime is defined using the concept of “planetary boundaries”, developed by the Stockholm Resilience Institute, which played a key role in the drafting of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

The SDG framework lists nine connected “planetary boundaries” (e.g. CO2 levels, ocean acidification, biosphere integrity) beyond which we cannot go without risking irreversible damage to the Earth’s ability to sustain human life.

A symbolic and powerful step forward

Valérie Cabanes, lawyer, activist and voice of ecocide law in France and beyond, presented the law proposal to the CCC in January. Inspired by the work of late British lawyer Polly Higgins, Cabanes has dedicated many years to legally enshrining the protection of nature.

“The approval of the Citizen’s Climate Convention reflects and speaks for a French population ready to adopt a law that respects the Earth’s ecosystems.

“The CCC also proposed that this law be decided via referendum, to avoid censure by parliament – letting the French population choose their own destiny: living in harmony with nature and protecting future generations – or not. It’s a symbolic and powerful step. Now we wait for our leaders to listen – and act in accordance with the proposals.”

Jojo Mehta, co-founder with Higgins’ of the Stop Ecocide campaign, works closely with Cabanes and others around the world to progress a crime of ecocide at the International Criminal Court.  She said: “The news from France is phenomenal.  It clearly demonstrates that citizens feel the urgent need for an enforceable deterrent to prevent ecosystem destruction.

“We trust the French government will respond positively and step up at the national level – even take the opportunity to lead at the international level, where Macron has already stated he believes this crime belongs.

“The ball is already rolling … climate-vulnerable states we have been working with have called for ecocide crime to be considered at the International Criminal Court in the Hague.  This vote is a huge pointer for France to move in the right direction, and will undoubtedly inspire other countries.”

Among the other proposals from the CCC are calls for an end to adverts for products with a high carbon footprint such as large SUV vehicles, heavy taxes on highly processed foods and a ban on the most dangerous pesticides by 2035.

The process is being closely observed from abroad – particularly by the UK, which has begun trialling its own form of citizens’ assembly. UK Green MP Caroline Lucas told The Skylark the interim reports from that citizen’s assembly “absolutely reinforced what we all know which is there is public appetite for urgent [climate] action”.

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