Ecocide to destroy the potential of a future for our children is a crime that bothers the mind. -Terence McKenna.
Today marks a month since the Azerbaijani eco-activists to hold a protest on the Lachin-Khankendi road against the Armenian eco-terror in Azerbaijan. The failure of the Russian peacekeeping contingent to prevent the illegal exploitation of natural resources in Karabakh has resulted in the ongoing protest on the major road that passes by Shusha. As a result of the negotiations with the Russian peacekeeping command, the delegation consisting of specialists from the ministries of Economy, Ecology and Natural Resources, the State Property Service under the Ministry of Economy, and “AzerGold” company was to conduct a preliminary monitoring of the illicit exploitation of mineral deposits in Karabakh, where peacekeepers are temporarily deployed, as well as related environmental and other problems. However, due to the inaction of the peacekeepers, the monitoring did not take place and resulted in the continuous protest of the Azerbaijani eco-activists which continues to this day.
Devastating environmental damage of Armenian occupation
Environmental destruction continues to be one of the most urgent matters for humanity today, and unlawful acts of environmental harm need to be addressed by international community with the ability to prosecute under international law.
After the victory of Azerbaijan in the Second Karabakh war that resulted in liberation of the internationally recognized territories of Azerbaijan from the Armenian occupation, which lasted for about three decades, Azerbaijani government launched an assessment of losses Armenia had caused to Azerbaijan over the years of occupation in various aspects, including devastating environmental damage.
Armenia committed unprecedented destruction in Karabakh and surrounding regions, which were kept under occupation for about 30 years by it, razed historical-religious monuments to ground, carried out vandalism acts against cemeteries, thus, tried to remove signs of Azerbaijanis in these areas completely, besides purposeful destruction of historical, cultural, religious heritage belonging to Azerbaijanis, who settled in its territory historically. Moreover, Armenian aggression resulted in significant disruption of the environment of the whole region of the South Caucasus. In fact, deliberate clearance and burning of forests, pollution of waters, destruction of flora and fauna, and ruthless squander of natural resources have disorganized the environmental balance. Furthermore, illegal business and exploitation of natural resources during the years of occupation made a huge economic damage with subversive environmental divarication.
“Leave nothing to Azerbaijan”
Notwithstanding the pain that Azerbaijanis have endured over the 30 years of Armenian agression, the Azerbaijani government and Armed Forces treated the Armenians illegitimately settled in Azerbaijani territories humanely, providing them with sufficient time to live their temporary settlements. The answer to this act of humanity were burning fires by Armenians to houses, cutting down trees, and setting fire to forest before they left the region. Virtually each Armenian family incinerated its house and surrounding areas while leaving Azerbaijani territories, especially Kalbajar and Lachin, which had been a place of choice for Armenian settlers. This is evidenced by numerous reports provided by global media who were in the region at that time, including Reuters, BBC, Strait Times, Euronews, France24, RBC and etc. Thus, for instance, it has been reported by the Reuters, that Armenians were burning down even schools and hospitals and butchering the cattle. Unfortunately, these illegal acts have not still received an adequate reaction from the international community.
Momentum towards international responsibility of Armenia
Against this background, it should be emphasized that facts regarding illegal activity of Armenia, including the commitment of ecocide have been gathered and submitted to international organizations.
Moreover, the devastating environmental damage of Armenian occupation has also been pointed out in various documents issued by international institutions. Thus, for example, a country report by the Asian Development Bank for Azerbaijan mentions that the aggression has resulted, inter alia, in degradation of lands.
The environmental terror against Azerbaijan also evidenced by Azercosmos satellite images which show that the most valuable examples of flora and fauna in the previously occupied territories have been significantly destroyed.
Hence, environmental cost of the war that ipso facto represents a deliberate and massive destruction of ecosystem can be legally assessed as ecocide which brings the element of urgency to the issue of international responsibility of Armenia.
Azerbaijan has already maintained that it would demand, through international courts, compensation for damage both from Armenia and from international companies that had conducted illegal business in the previously occupied territories of Azerbaijan.
“Of course, the illegal exploitation of our natural resources is an undeniable fact. We have the names of companies. I must say that if the companies that illegally exploited our gold and other deposits do not pay compensation, this issue will go to court. If they do not deliver this compensation, all the cases will go to international courts, and they will be humiliated”, said Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.
The issue of international responsibility of Armenia comes at a moment when our planet is facing unprecedented pressures through multiple crises relating to climate change, environmental degradation, biodiversity ecosystem loss and pollution. Undoubtedly, all of them directly impact the full enjoyment of human rights, increase inequality and jeopardize the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. The existential threat is posed by human-induced environmental destruction, the vivid example of which is ecocide committed by Armenia in the region of the South Caucasus.
Yet most serious environmental damage is not covered under existing definitions of international crimes. There is a momentum to address this accountability gap for the most serious harms to the environment. The recent ecocide cases committed by Armenia against Azerbaijan may be an important trigger to mobilize further support for an enforceable criminal law deterrent to environmental destruction.
Time for ecocide to become an international crime
The Nuremberg tribunal that had been established on 20th November 1945 prosecuted Nazis for mass atrocities committed during the Second World War. Among the international crimes which, just four years earlier, Winston Churchill had called “a crime without a name”: genocide, committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. The universal definition was formally defined with the adoption of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948. Half a century later it became one of just four international crimes along with crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression fixed in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Now, there is a momentum to name another concept as an international crime – ecocide.
The term “ecocide” was invented by the plant biologist Arthur Galston in a 1970 who defined ecocide as “willful and permanent destruction of environment in which people can live in a manner of their own choosing”. The academic interested to the concept of ecocide was coincided with the period of the Vietnam War and its devastating human and environmental effects. Thus, such scholars as Richard Falk who was the first academician to sufficiently examine the concept of ecocide, publishing in 1973, proposed international convention on the crime of ecocide, and later, in 1996, Mark Allan Gray published his analysis of “The International Crime of Ecocide” trying to demonstrate the existence of the notion of ecocide in international law and analyzing the possibility of creation ecocide as an international crime.
With the increasing awareness of the alarming situation of the environment and the international legal gaps to properly address this issue the 21st century has also given rise to a number of analyses on the linkage and role of international humanitarian law and international criminal law in addressing ecocide.
With the increasing urgency of the global environmental crisis, an international community, including growing number of states and international institutions such as the UN and EU, as well as corporate investors and eco-activists, believe that ecocide should also be defined as a crime under international law.
Hence, in November 2021 a panel of legal experts convened by the Stop Ecocide International Foundation (Expert Panel) set about formally defining the crime of ecocide. International lawyers proposed that the Statute of the ICC be amended to expand the Court`s jurisdiction to include the crime of ecocide. In this regard, the Expert Panel suggested the following definition of the crime of ecocide: “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts”.
In fact, today, there is a justified appetite for legal avenues to address environmental catastrophes. In his report, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Context of Climate Change recommends the introduction of the crime of ecocide at the ICC and also calls for the establishment of tribunals to prosecute violence against environmental defenders, and to hold governments accountable for the committed offences.
To raise ecocide to the rank of an international crime by directly incorporating it into the ICC Statute alongside other existing international crimes would definitely contribute to a wider recognition of ecocide as a criminal offence at the international level and, through the complementarity mechanism, at the national level too. In this regard is should be also mentioned that Azerbaijan currently considers to add article on ecocide to its Criminal Code.
Civil society around the globe, including ecocide campaigners from different countries also call for environmental damage to be treated like other international crimes such as war crimes and crimes against humanity. “It literally means ‘killing one’s home,” explains Ecocide International, the preeminent campaign group on the topic.
Eco-activists in Azerbaijan also “ring the bells” through peaceful protests against the illicit exploitation of Azerbaijan’s natural resources by Armenia. As it has been already mentioned, representatives of Azerbaijan’s non-governmental organizations have been protesting near Shusha, close to the area of Russian peacekeepers’ temporary deployment, for one month. The protest is being held against the inadmissibility of Azerbaijani specialists to the territory, to monitor the illegal exploitation of the country’s mineral resources. The demonstrators raised a big balloon with the “Stop ecocide” inscription on the Lachin-Khankandi road, as well as continue to chant slogans: “Azerbaijan is the master of its mineral resources!”, “End environmental crimes!”, “Stop ecoterror!”, “Protect nature!”, “No ecocide! Yes to monitoring!”.
Why does this matter?
The criminalization of mass damage to the environment is, in itself, likely to influence the behavior of government and businesses in positive ways. In light of the urgency of the environmental catastrophe made by Armenia, this momentum is welcome – and, indeed, long overdue.
Thus, the ecocide committed by Armenians against Azerbaijan should represent an alarm for all international stakeholders and decision-makers due to the fact that the “safety of the planet” is increasingly recognized as being among the core “supra-national” values and interests that must be protected internationally. This is evidenced by the fact that ecocide is often referred to as being “of concern to the international community as a whole”. Besides, the massive exploitation and destruction of natural resources usually transcend national borders by involving or affecting the interests of several states. To stop these exploitation and destruction, coordinated efforts at the international level is urgently required. Finally, the commission of environmental criminality on a massive scale usually threatens international peace and security, like any other international crime.
Hence, international community should learn from this example and provide an effective deterrent for those in positions of responsibility, enforceable within existing criminal justice systems in order to think about the future of our planet and the generations that will come after us.