Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court Thursday said they would boost their focus on environmental destruction and illegal land grabs as possible crimes against humanity, in what may prove a warning to big business.
In a new ICC internal policy, chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said her office would “give particular consideration” to crimes committed by or resulting in “the destruction of the environment, the illegal exploitation of natural resources or the illegal dispossession of land”.
The landmark move was hailed by environmental and rights activists who said it could act as a strong deterrent to big business and corrupt politicians around the world.
Outrage has grown worldwide over the plight of villagers and indigenous people being thrown off lands sold to logging and mining companies, as well as agribusiness.
The non-governmental organisation Global Witness said millions had been dispossessed around the world.
The ICC move “shows that the age of impunity is coming to an end”, said its executive director Gillian Caldwell.
“Company bosses and politicians complicit in violently seizing land, razing tropical forests or poisoning water sources could soon find themselves standing trial in The Hague alongside war criminals and dictators,” she added.
Helen Brady, senior appeals counsel in the prosecutor’s office who chaired the policy’s working group, told AFP the ICC was “not adding new crimes” to those already set out in its guiding Rome Statute.
“What we’re acknowledging is an emphasis, or an expanded focus by this office… on these crimes that are committed by means of this destruction of environment or dispossession of property”.
This focus — along with prioritising crimes against children, gender-based violence and cultural destruction — will “move the ICC to become an international criminal court for the 21st century and beyond”, she added.
It “does send a powerful message and is something that could be listened to by would-be perpetrators”, Brady said.
Based in The Hague, the ICC began work in 2002 to prosecute the world’s worst crimes. Most of the cases so far prosecuted or under investigation have arisen out of complex, armed conflicts, primarily in Africa.
But the Rome Statute does also “cover crimes which can be committed in peacetime” such as the forcible removal of people from their lands, said Brady.
Lawyers have already filed a large dossier to the prosecutor’s office asking her to open an investigation into land grabs in Cambodia.
Some 850,000 people are believed to have been forced off their land in the past 15 to 20 years, as plots of Cambodian land have been sold off to foreign companies often from China and Vietnam, Richard Rogers, a lawyer who filed the dossier in 2014, told AFP.
The new emphasis at the ICC will send “a message to these kleptocracies around the world who have stayed under the radar for such a long time”, he said.