Minister of climate and environment Zakia Khattabi issued a press release (November 5th), in which she triumphantly pats herself on the back: “Zakia Khattabi gets the crime of ecocide written into the criminal code”. The text of the proposal still has to be voted on by parliament, and is not yet available to the public. Sadly, the federal government has opted for a high threshold to be able to speak of ecocide, because no fewer than 6 conditions must be met: (1) the acts must be intentional and (2) illegal, the damage must be (3) serious , (4) large-scale and (5) long-term and (6) these actions were known to cause such damage. Ecocide will be very difficult to prove with all these conditions. Will we be able to protect nature in Belgium with this new law? The NGO “Stop Ecocide International” has had a definition of ecocide drawn up by an independent team of experts. Herein, ecocide is referred to as widespread OR long-term damage. The Belgian bill states “large-scale AND long-term damage”. This cumulative aspect means that many environmental damage cases will not even qualify to be considered an ecocide, according to the bill.
In an interview with Radio 1, Minister of Justice Vincent Van Quickenborne gives the following examples of the type of environmental damage to which the bill applies: the Exxon-Valdez that ran aground on a reef off Alaska, and pollution of the Meuse river. Van Quickenborne puts the emphasis on the international aspect. Cases of environmental damage within Belgium will be dealt with through the existing environmental law by the regions, instead of through the new ecocide law, he says. That means this new ecocide law which is federal will not apply to domestic cases of environmental damage.
The regional legislation Van Quickenborne refers to for domestic cases is insufficient. This is evident from the current situation with 3M. Although in Belgium the majority of citizens want to see companies like 3M be prosecuted and convicted, with the current definition as quoted from the ecocide law proposal, 3M would escape prosecution. After all, the PFAS contamination was unintentional and completely legal. XR Belgium’s ask for protection against criminal companies that unscrupulously destroy nature and pump the atmosphere full of CO2 for the profits of shareholders is by no means satisfied.
Van Quickenborne and alderman/environmental lawyer Hendrik Schoukens were present at TV talkshow “De Afspraak”. Presenter Phara asked them: “We already had the legislation. Why the extra ecocide law now?” Van Quickenborne: “For cross-border cases” and “There must be links with Belgium”. Schoukens: “It is a starting point, not an end point”.
This new ecocide law is presented, with much drumbeat just at the start of COP27. But when looking more closely, you can’t help but think “is this perhaps a red herring, to distract us from Belgium's failing climate policy? Isn't this just greenwashing? We should be very happy with this pioneering work of the Federal Government, for giving us an ecocide law, even if it is dead in the water. It sets a precedent. However, if we add ecocide to international criminal law with this cumulative definition, it will be a fiasco. The environmental organizations that are now clapping and cheering may not have fully encompassed the implications.
The self-assured arrogance is dripping from the Belgian politicians, in talk shows on TV and now also at the COP, where De Croo spoke disdainfully about Just Stop Oil and our friends who are now jailed in The Hague. during his five-minute speech lashed out at least three times at art-focused climate activism. Triumphantly, De Croo said that he had a large delegation from the private sector with climate solutions. Without blinking he assured the world that technology is our salvation. The message is clear: don't pay any attention to those attention-seeking climate activists - we already have the climate solutions.