The International Criminal Court (ICC) announced this week that it would start considering cases involving environmental destruction, misuse of land, and land grabs as crimes against humanity.
The move reflects a broadening perspective on what constitutes a war crime, as seen in recent prosecutions for cultural devastation and coral reef destruction.
"They aren't changing the definitions of crimes or expanding the law or creating new crimes or anything like that," Alex Whiting, a professor at Harvard Law School, told the Washington Post. "They are paying particular attention to crimes that are committed by use of environmental impact or have consequences of environmental impact."
This represents a significant shift in strategy at the ICC, which since its 1989 inception has been charged with investigating war crimes and human rights offenses when national governments were incapable of doing so. In practice, ICC’s announcement will likely expand the number people who could find themselves prosecuted by the court beyond the usual politicians, military commanders, or rebel leaders who are investigated for violent war crimes.
“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," said Gillian Caldwell, executive director of the advocacy group Global Witness, in a statement.
Global Witness reports that 2015 was the deadliest year on record for land-grab victims, with more than three people killed each week in territory conflicts with miners, loggers, hydro-electric dams, or agribusiness firms.
Some observers say that the ICC does not have the capacity to properly monitor the issue, and that the announcement is actually signaling a much more hands off approach.
"I wouldn't say those kind of prosecutions would be likely. They would be very hard to bring," David Bosco told the Washington Post. The assistant professor at American University's School of International Service and author of a book on the ICC, "Rough Justice," added that perhaps the ICC will partner with national governments on environmental cases but not prosecute in ICC courts.
Even before the policy paper was published, the ICC had begun to shift its focus.
In August, former Islamist rebel Ahmad al-Fahdi al-Mahdi became the first man to be charged in the ICC with cultural destruction as a war crime, a strategy which has become increasingly common in the last decade.
The first test of the new policy will come when ICC prosecutor and author of the policy paper Fatou Bensouda decides whether or not to try a case filed in 2014 against Cambodia for illegal land grabbing practices that Global Diligence, a London-based human rights firm, reports has forced 350,000 people from their homes to live in poverty since 2002.
"The systemic crimes committed under the guise of ‘development’ are no less damaging to victims than many wartime atrocities," said Richard Rogers, a partner at Global Diligence, in a statement. "The ICC Prosecutor has sent a clear message that such offences may amount to crimes against humanity and can no longer be tolerated.”
[Editor's note: The original story incorrectly attributed a ruling on China's activities in the South China Sea to the ICC. That ruling was by International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea or International Court of Justice in The Hague.]