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European Union gives the green light to 'Ecocide', strengthening sanctions for crimes against the Natural Ecosystem.

Updated: Mar 15

The debate has been going on for a long time. Environmental protection must also go through an appropriate regulatory framework. Since late 1960's to today, Environmental Law is constantly evolving, like the modern ecology, at supranational, national and regional level, as a branch of legal studies that deals with the protection, conservation and restoration of adequate natural conditions. Not by chance, the Right to a Clean, Healthy and Sustainable Environment was officially included among fundamental rights by the Resolution No. 48/13 (8th October 2021) within the United Nations Human Rights Council.

On the 27th February 2024, a topical Criminal Law Directive on the Protection of the Environment was approved by the European Union Parliament and Council. The binding document, which Member States are obliged to transpose into national law by the deadline set (two years since the publication), will introduce new environmental crimes while reinforcing the system of sanctions and criminal proceedings to provide for ad hoc judicial cases.

Photo >> Nature reflected on a crystal ball © MonacoEcoArt & Wix

The new Directive takes inspiration from the guiding principles of precaution, preventive action and the PPP, the rectification at source principle set to be more cost-effective than remedying when the damage has caused all the effects. Furthermore, the traditional criminal and administrative law principle 'polluters pay' remains valid. That comes from the widely applied practice since 1992 Rio Declaration which implies that the person causing the damage is responsible for covering the required costs to prevent consequences on human health or on the environment.

The increasing number of cases of severe pollution whose effects exceeds the borders of European states, already known as free-riding effects, pushed the European Union to empower the actions and cross-border cooperation. Besides active behaviours, not acting when you should produces legally punishable effects. In the new binding text, omissions are therefore considered misconduct and then listed among possible environmental crimes, if they violate the European Union regulatory framework.

Photo >> Walking in Nature © MonacoEcoArt & Wix

The Directive unveils a set of new type of offences, notably:

  • The illegal trade of timber.

  • The illegal introduction of energy into the environment which causes or may cause significant damage to the environment and to the human health.

  • The depletion of water resources.

  • Serious violations of EU legislation as for the use of chemicals.

  • Pollution caused by ship transports.

The European legislator also introduced a new provision that directly involves the Business Sector. Anyone who places on the market products whose large-scale use involves the discharge, emission or introduction of a quantity of hazardous elements, energy or ionising radiations in air, soil or water, capable to cause significant damage to the environment or human health, is considered criminally liable, even under authorisation. The whole product lifecycle is then under review, included waste management with particular reference to the production of highly polluting substances (e.g.: pharmaceuticals, drugs, chemicals, toxins, heavy metals, oils, plastics, WEEE, etc.).

All these criminal acts constitute the new Crime of Ecocide punished with more severe penalties, up to 8 years imprisonment, even in the case of attempted crime if it has already caused serious damage, injuries or death of living beings. Committing these conducts in the field of organised crime or through forms of corruption with institutions is aggravating the offence. Sanctions could order the guilty party to restore the environment as well as to compensate for irreversible damage, while being excluded from participation in public calls or European funding for a number of years.

The crime can always be claimed by the State in whose territory the damage occurred with possible civil actions by citizens directly involved in environmental disasters. The judicial proceedings will follow national legislation allowing investigators to collect information and data, respecting the right to privacy.

The Criminal Law Directive on the Protection of the Environment represents a real legislative turning point in the European Corpus Iuris matching with a decisive decade with regard to climate change and global warming. Individual European Countries are now called to contribute to its implementation. ***

To know more about the Criminal Law Directive on the Protection of the Environment please visit: European Parliament


By Maurice Abbati

Journalist; Editor; Communication, Media and Public Relations Specialist

Lecturer and Author in English language of Technical Articles and the Manual: "Communicating the Environment to Save the Planet, a Journey into Eco-Communication" by Springer International Publishing.

Cover page of PhD manual by Maurice Abbati

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