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Tuesday, June 25, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Ukraine is ground zero in battle for ecocide law

Ukraine is actively seeking justice for crimes committed by Russia, including damage and destruction of the environment. 

CHERNOBYL, Ukraine (CN) — Staff at the disused Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine call the 35-day Russian occupation of the facility “nuclear terrorism.” 

“We protect the world from this waste,” said Serhiy Kireev, the general director of Ecocenter, which maintains staff to monitor radiation on the site. 

Ukraine is still embroiled in an active conflict with the Russians, but the country is also on the frontlines of advancing legal protections for the environment. 

In February, the country’s chief prosecutor advanced the world’s first ecocide case, formally informing a Russian general he was under investigation for an attack on another nuclear plant. 

“We want to make it so the environment is no longer the silent victim of war,” says Maksym Popov, an environmental lawyer who works as a special advisor to the Office of the Prosecutor General in Ukraine.  

In 2021, one year before the full-scale Russian invasion, the office of the prosecutor created a special division to focus on environmental crimes. So far, investigators have opened 211 cases involving crimes against the environment. Fourteen of those involve ecocide. 

“In Ukraine, people talk about ecocide as if it is a real thing. Because it is,” Kate Mackintosh, an expert in international environmental law, told Courthouse News. The country is one of only ten in the world that criminalizes ecocide, or the committing of intentional acts to destroy the environment. 

The term was coined during the Vietnam War, when the United States used chemical defoliants to strip jungle foliage and prevent the Viet Cong from using densely packed forests as shelter. 

Activists tried to get the crime added as the fifth international crime — alongside war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression — when the Rome Statute was negotiated in 1998. Those attempts couldn’t overcome objections by the United Kingdom, France and the United States. 

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, there has been a change of weather. According to Mackintosh, climate change pushed forward the movement to criminalize and prosecute crimes against the environment, including a new move to add ecocide to the Rome Statute. 

“The timing is just right,” she said. 

“The environmental crisis is the most existential crisis that humanity faces,” said Kevin Jon Heller, an international law scholar who is currently serving as a special advisor to the International Criminal Court prosecutor. The ICC will soon publish a draft proposal on environmental crimes and how they can be incorporated into the court's mandate. 

The Rome Statute does outlaw as a war crime attacks that are intended to cause “widespread, long-term and severe damage,” so damage in Ukraine could qualify, but it wouldn't include destruction that occurs outside of an armed conflict. 

The destruction of the Kakhovka Dam in 2023 is the most cited example of an environmental crime that The Hague-based court might prosecute. The structure had been under Russian control since the very earliest stage of the full-scale invasion. Last year, a series of explosions destroyed the two-mile-wide dam, flooding more than 40 villages and killing at least 50 people. 

On the day Kakhovka was destroyed, the Ukrainian prosecutor general submitted information about the disaster to the ICC. Investigators have since been able to gain intermittent access to the site in order to take samples and measure contaminants. 

Some 300 people were on the site of the former Soviet power station at Chernobyl — decommissioned after the 1986 nuclear disaster — when Russian forces took over on February 24, 2022. Ukrainian staff were forced to work at gunpoint and were refused medical care during the five-month occupation. 

Eighty-nine people are still missing. All were men taken as prisoners of war and are now being held in Russia.

One of those held is the husband of Svetlana, a Ukrainian soldier who asked not to be identified by her full name while her husband remains in detention. Svetlana was serving in the Ukrainian national guard and was stationed at the facility on the day of the invasion. She is now serving in the military. 

“I haven’t been able to speak to him, I do not know anything about him or his condition,” she said, speaking to journalists in her uniform at the Chernobyl site. 

Svetlana showed photos of the condition of other men who were captured and have been released, emaciated, in prisoner exchanges. 

The human tragedy of the war may make it seem like protecting the environment wouldn’t be an obvious priority for Ukraine, fighting for its national survival. But Popov disagrees.

“We don’t have the moral authority to ignore environmental crimes,” he said. 

The environmental lawyer, like many Ukrainians, stressed that respecting the rule of law and their international legal commitments, is what separates them from the Russians. 

“Hopefully, civilized nations, including Ukraine, understand that this is a common value that should be protected, especially for future generations,” he said. 

Follow @mollyquell
Categories / Environment, International

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