Belgium becomes first European country to recognise “ecocide” as international level crime


Belgium’s Federal Parliament last week (23 February) voted in favour of a new penal code for the country, which, for the first time in Europe, includes recognition of the crime of “ecocide” at both the national and international levels.

Nationally, the new crime of ecocide, aimed at preventing and punishing what are deemed to be the most “severe cases of environmental degradation”, such as extensive oil spills, will apply to individuals in the highest positions of decision-making power and to corporations.

The punishment for individuals may include up to 20 years in prison, while corporations could face fines of up to 1.6 million euros.

Within Belgium’s federal monarchy, domestic environmental legislation is primarily the responsibility of the three regional governments of Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels. The scope of this new law is limited to areas within the jurisdiction of the federal authority, including the North Sea and nuclear waste management.

The limited domestic scope of the new bill is not a reason to dismiss the significance of the development, says Patricia Willocq, Director of Stop Ecocide Belgium, who said: “Last November, following months of relentless advocacy from a diverse coalition of political allies, the European Union reached an agreement to incorporate a new dedicated offense into its recently revised environmental crimes directive, targeting ‘cases comparable to ecocide’.

“Now, all 27 member states are tasked with aligning their domestic penal codes with this updated directive, a process that will extend to Belgium’s three regions. We anticipate that this effort will significantly reduce any disparities between federal and regional environmental criminal laws. As Belgium holds the presidency of the European Union, this directive should encourage the regions to play their part in the area of their competence.”

In order to fully protect nature, it is necessary that those that would willfully destroy vast swathes of the natural world, in turn causing untold human harm, should be criminalised.

“Belgium is now at the forefront of a truly global conversation around criminalising the most severe harms to nature and must continue to advocate for the recognition of ecocide at the International Criminal Court, alongside genocide.

“In order to fully protect nature, it is necessary that those that would willfully destroy vast swathes of the natural world, in turn causing untold human harm, should be criminalised. We will continue to campaign to eradicate ecocide from Belgium and the world.”

Additionally, Belgium has become the first European country to recognise ecocide as an international crime, based on the consensus definition proposed in 2021 by the Independent Expert Panel (IEP) convened by the Stop Ecocide Foundation, in its penal code.

The country has already recognised genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression and is now adding a nature-centered element to its penal code by recognising a fifth crime under international law: ecocide.

Samuel Cogolati, Member of the Federal Parliament (Ecolo (Green) Party), who played a significant role in championing the inclusion of ecocide in the new penal code, said: “After 4 years of fighting in Parliament and in civil society, our penal code is finally coming to the aid of the planet: the worst attacks against the environment are about to be criminalized.

“Our mobilisation is bearing fruit! Let us send a strong signal to the international community: the Belgian Parliament recognises a fifth ‘international crime’ after war crimes, crimes of aggression, crimes against humanity and genocide.”

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