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Ecocide – a catastrophic consequence of nuclear weapons

October 28, 2012
Lake Karachay, known as the most polluted place on Earth, near the Mayak nuclear plant.

“Killer” Lake Karachay, known as the most polluted place on Earth, near the Mayak nuclear plant in Chelyabinsk, reportedly has enough radiation in it to kill a human being in an hour. Image: Google

Over the many years that we have been trying to educate the public on the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons we have mostly concentrated on the destruction of human life and health, not surprisingly, as we are a physician’s organisation.

Recently, IPPNW has begun to focus on the environmental effects, particularly on the climate, of a nuclear war, limited to one region but affecting the whole world and the knock-on effects for human life and health. The work with climatologists Alan Robock and Brian Toon has enabled us to show that a relatively “small” nuclear exchange could cause millions of people to die from starvation – this we have termed “nuclear famine”.

When I was in Astana, I met Polly Higgins. She is a Scottish barrister with a background in corporate law. Polly is campaigning to get the crime of “Ecocide” added to the list of crimes against peace that are recognised by the International Criminal Court. She came to Astana to speak to Parliamentarians for Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Disarmament (PNND) about how ecocide would apply to the nuclear weapons issue, giving teeth to our calls for a treaty to abolish them.

Uta Zapf, a German MP and Co-President of PNND, invited Polly to come to Berlin last week to speak to other parliamentarians about this idea. I also managed to get a group of interested lawyers to come and to chew the idea through with her. We talked about the idea of ecocide itself, what it means and what the history of it is, as well as how we might use it to further our campaigning in ICAN. Polly also talked about the movement of people supporting her which is predominantly young, very large and growing rapidly.

Ecocide is, according to Polly’s definition, “the extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been severely diminished.”

Chelyabinsk, Chernobyl, Fukushima, Marshall Islands, Maralinga, Semipalatinsk, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Kakadu, Wismut – we could apply the above description to all of these places. A nuclear winter (the climate change caused by an all-out nuclear war) is the worst imaginable ecocide. The scenario we use for the nuclear famine would also be ecocide.

The drive to get this law into place is about stopping the ongoing destruction of the planet as a whole, of which the nuclear weapons/energy issue is only one – albeit one of the widest-reaching. Added to this is the daily corporate ecological destruction caused by oil, gas and mineral extraction, the production of greenhouse gases, deforestation, water and air pollution.

Present international humanitarian law only outlaws ecocide in a time of war, not in peacetime. A law of ecocide would criminalise the destruction of ecosystems and establish a legal duty of care for the environment, holding people of “superior responsibility” – government members, heads of state, CEOs, heads of banks, etc. – to account. With this law in place it would be possible – if strict liability was applied – to act preventively to stop a pending ecocide. In other words, we could begin to establish primary care for the health of the Earth.

Humans are part of the environment, which is a living entity. The Earth cannot be viewed as an inert thing to be exploited in order to provide more and more consumables for humans. We are literally eating away at our foundations, digging up and burning them, poisoning the air we breathe. The radiation we have belched out with more than 2000 nuclear tests and add to daily with more and more reactors has insidiously caused millions of cancers and seeped into our gene pool, causing havoc. The catastrophic consequences of the nuclear chain are already there, without the nuclear war that we all feared in the 1980s ever having taken place. We need to understand that the nuclear weapons/energy element of the greatest ecocide of all, the destruction of the planet, is an issue that requires the peace movement and the environmental movement to join together and speak with one, strong voice.

What we have to do, in my view, is share our messages and use the same terminology. That is why, when I talk about the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, I will use the term “ecocide” and not just say there are environmental consequences. The magnitude of the problem requires this term in order to further frame the debate about changing international humanitarian law.

A law of ecocide that would make governments and CEOs liable for their actions would enable them to act differently, so that the profit margin was no longer the top priority – presently, corporations are legally bound to make the maximum profit for their shareholders, says Higgins – and usher in new business behaviour that takes the legal duty of care into account at the outset. While maximum profit is legally prioritised higher than the duty to protect the environment (including the right to life and health), it is difficult for businesses to opt out and act differently because of the expense involved.

The abandonment of nuclear energy in Germany is a case in point. It can only succeed if Germany manages to convert to environmentally-friendly energy sources quick enough and secure the export market for renewable technologies against massive competition from Asian companies that can produce more cheaply. If a law against ecocide was in place then this would allow subsidies to aid such an energy shift and take the unfair advantages out of the market.

In order for us to get a treaty abolishing nuclear weapons, we need to find support from a wider constituency. The environmental movement is severely divided over the nuclear issue. Framed this way, however, there is a possibility to stop trading one environmental evil for another and to start seeing that there are other solutions. We need to see the problem more holistically while retaining our special focus where our competence is recognised. Ecocide is a health problem, and nuclear weapons could cause the worst ecocide imaginable.

For more information on ecocide visit the website:

Xanthe Hall is international campaigner and nuclear disarmament expert for IPPNW Germany

  1. November 1, 2012 3:03 am

    Hi Ros, I have spent a fair time discussing this with Polly, both in Astana and Berlin. As I say in the article, IHL covers the question of ecocide in wartime, but not peacetime. The point of establishing a law of ecocide is not only to cover dangerous industrial and governmental activity such as uranium mining and nuclear testing, but also to establish a legal duty of care, so that we can act preventively. Nice to hear from you, X

  2. October 31, 2012 6:37 pm

    Xanthe, thank you for this, I hope you’ve had a chance to talk with Polly. One thing I must say is that IHL does not need changing- it needs enforcing – nuclear weapons are incompatible with the very principles on which IHL is based. A law of Ecocide would change the rules of the game for all dangerous industrial activity. Hope to see you soon Ros

  3. Andrew S. Kanter permalink
    October 28, 2012 10:01 am

    Xanthe, I think this is a great idea, although I think we would have to be quite clear about the definition and to the extent. Would a nuclear waste repository be considered ecocide? What if the poisoning is temporary? For example, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are inhabited now. Overall, I think this idea could do well in codifying the destruction which is currently being ignored. Like humanitarian law, this should be based on principles of interdependency (our own survival) and universal responsibility (to future generations). I often use the term planetcidal weapons when talking about nuclear weapons, but ecocide works too.


  1. Ecocide, a Catastrophic Consequence of Nuclear Weapons | Human Wrongs Watch

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