Environmental destruction and landgrabs could lead to governments and individuals being prosecuted for crimes against humanity by the international criminal court following a decision to expand its remit.
The UN-backed court, which sits in The Hague, has mostly ruled on cases of genocide and war crimes since it was set up in 2002. It has been criticised for its reluctance to investigate major environmental and cultural crimes, which often happen in peacetime.
In a change of focus, the ICC said on Thursday it would also prioritise crimes that result in the “destruction of the environment”, “exploitation of natural resources” and the “illegal dispossession” of land. It also included an explicit reference to land-grabbing.
The court, which is funded by governments and is regarded as the court of last resort, said it would now take many crimes that have been traditionally under-prosecuted into consideration.
The ICC is not formally extending its jurisdiction, but the court said it would assess existing offences, such as crimes against humanity, in a broader context.
The ICC’s policy paper on case selection and prioritisation declares: “The office [of the prosecutor] will give particular consideration to prosecuting Rome statute crimes that are committed by means of, or that result in, inter alia, the destruction of the environment, the illegal exploitation of natural resources or the illegal dispossession of land.”
Land-grabbing has become increasingly common worldwide, with national and local governments allocating private companies tens of millions of hectares of land in the past 10 years.
The anti-corruption campaigners Global Witness say this has led to many forced evictions, the cultural genocide of indigenous peoples, malnutrition and environmental destruction.
“Land-grabbing is no less harmful than war in terms of negative impacts on civilians”, said Alice Harrison, an adviser at Global Witness. “Today’s announcement should send a warning shot to company executives and investors that the environment is no longer their playground.