International Environmental Crime: A Critical Analysis

International Environmental Crime: A Critical Analysis

International Environmental Crime: Introduction

This article on International Environmental Crime is written by Shrishti Chauhan, pursuing B.A.LL.B. from Christ University.

international environmental crime

According to the INTERPOL-UNEP Report 2016, illegal activities that involve the environment, biodiversity or natural resources are often lucrative and involve comparatively low risks for criminals. Some countries' prioritisation of environmental crimes has resulted in a lack of proper and proportionate official response. Abuse of the environment increasingly crosses international boundaries. However, few customary norms and domestic laws effectively penalise international environmental malfeasance due to the old international law of territoriality. In light of the development of international criminal law and the limitations imposed by the idea of the environment itself, this paper discusses the theoretical prospects of an international criminal law of the environment. It implies that the world community is curiously unarmed when it comes to "global" crimes like those committed against the environment because international criminal law has a tendency to focus on "cosmopolitan" crimes. The tragedy of the commons and the fact that, while all governments collectively have an interest in seeing some serious environmental attacks put down, no state is willing to take on that obligation individually presents problems for international criminal law. 

A quick introduction to this will help in comprehending international environmental criminal law even though this paper does not aim to discuss the justifications for criminalising environmental offences in general.  Although many legal and economic theories have sought to explain why environmental law violations require criminal prosecution as well as other punitive measures, there are fundamentally three reasons why environmental offences occur. One explanation could be that civil and administrative laws don't sufficiently deter noncompliance. Another explanation is that society wants to label some behaviours as "illegal" in order to show its moral outrage and to utterly forbid them. A sort of economic examination of crime and punishment makes up the third justification. An effective criminal statute generally increases the cost of particular types of behaviour and promotes compliance with laws and regulations that would otherwise be mostly disregarded. Taking this stance into consideration, a rising number of states have passed legislation outlining the penalties for environmental offences.  Additionally, several states have passed legislation to safeguard resources located outside of their borders. As a counterbalance to loosened border controls, states may seek bilateral, regional, or international measures to combat crime because it is widely acknowledged that transnational crime knows no national borders. Therefore, coordinated worldwide action is often more successful to combat threats to global security, especially when it comes to crimes that are unavoidably "international" in nature.


Since the first historic United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972, more than 250 global and regional environmental accords have been created. The number of evasion efforts has increased as these accords have expanded beyond simple commitments of reciprocal scientific cooperation to include significant control measures like trade restrictions.

The sheer fact that there are national and international rules may encourage dishonest people and businesses to engage in "environmental crimes" and consciously break the law in order to profit financially. It is conceivable to speak of "international" or "transboundary" environmental crime when there is cross-border movement of products (such as smuggling, etc.) or a transboundary effect on offences.

Organizations including the G8, Interpol, EU, UN Environment Programme, and UN Interregional Crime and Justice Research Centre have identified five general categories of crimes. Which are:

Illegal wildlife trade in violation of the 1973 Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES); illegal ozone-depleting substance trade in violation of the 1987 Montreal Protocol; illegal dumping and transportation of various types of hazardous waste in violation of the 1989 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and Ozone;

Illegal logging and trade in wood occur when wood is harvested, moved, purchased, or sold against the rules of the country.

These five recognised categories may be equivalent to other environmental offences.

Infractions under the 2000 Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Biodiversity Convention include biopiracy and the transport of restricted biological or genetic material; illegal dumping of oil and other waste in oceans; and violations of the 1973 International Convention on the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) and the 1972 London Convention on Dumping.

Trade in chemicals in violation of the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. Smuggling of "fuel" to get around taxes or upcoming regulations on carbon emissions. Violations of potential trade restrictions under the 1998 Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade. While some forms of fuel smuggling, including the dumping of garbage and oil into the ocean, are currently crimes, others won't be until the applicable multilateral environmental accord (MEA) and its implementing laws take effect.

Five of the most common environmental crime areas worldwide are listed in a recent UN Environment research titled "The State of Awareness on Crimes that Have Significant Effects on the Environment" :

Wildlife crime: According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), wildlife crime impacts a variety of species, including mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, insects, and plants. It is particularly prevalent in Africa, Asia, and South America. The illegal trade in plants and animals has been identified by the UN General Assembly as a severe form of transnational organised crime for the past seven years. Yet, many countries that are impacted by wildlife trafficking have been slow to invest in an effective enforcement strategy to hunt down and apprehend the prominent members who control the trade. Normally, the professional enforcement community places little focus on wildlife crime. Nonetheless, wildlife crime is alluring due to its great profit potential and minimal danger (of being discovered, caught, and prosecuted), and the money made from it may even be used to fund more serious crimes. This alone should encourage organisations concerned with law and order, security, and socioeconomic stability to become more involved in halting wildlife crime.

  • Illegal logging: According to 2016 research by the International Union of Forest Research Organizations, illegal logging has spread throughout all tropical forest regions, including China, India, and Vietnam, three of the world's largest importers of both legal and illicit tropical wood products. One of the most urgent environmental challenges facing the world community is serious organised criminality in the forestry and wood industries. Illegal logging is endangering priceless forests from the Amazon, through West and Central Africa, to East Asia because it offers low risks and huge returns on a largely uncontrolled global market for affordable timber and wood products.
  • Illegal fishing is a global problem, taking place in both national exclusive economic zones and international waterways, according to 2013 research by the PEW Charitable Trust. Specialized ships catch up to 70 million of the 100 million sharks they catch each year, only to have their fins removed while they are still alive and then toss them back into the water. Since 2003, this technique, which results in a prolonged and agonising death, has been outlawed in the EU. The shark finning trade is blatantly visible given that a kilogramme of shark fins sells for 600 euros in the Asian market. When you next see shark fin soup on the menus of Asian restaurants, stop and consider where it comes from. Sharks are not only strong and attractive creatures, but they also play a crucial role in the trophic chain of the oceans, which is why they are necessary for their survival.
  • Pollution-related crimes: Illegal waste trading and disposal have devastated regional ecosystems, poisoned the air, land, and water supplies (including water tables and river systems), and negatively impacted public health. The European Union, the United States, Japan, and Australia are typically listed as the biggest exporters of illegal rubbish because they account for the majority of these countries exports. Africa (Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Togo, Benin and Senegal) and Asia are the primary destinations for illegal trash trafficking (China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Pakistan and Vietnam). This includes the unauthorised manufacturing and use of ozone-depleting compounds including hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and other substances. These compounds have an impact on animal immune systems, making them more susceptible to infectious illnesses and reducing plant and phytoplankton productivity. The most frequent perpetrators of this type of environmental crime are businesses, manufacturers, and government agencies. The majority of the time, faeces and toxic waste from factories are disposed of in a controlled manner, however, this is not always the case. In these situations, garbage is uncontrollably released into the environment, damaging aquifers, lakes, rivers, and other natural resources. This is a highly serious crime since it not only results in the death or illness of the local fauna but also, as a result of the water soaking into the soil, contaminates the nearby vegetation and disrupts the food chain. There are numerous solutions to the problem of garbage dumping, including the use of sewage plants or collectors.
  • Illegal mining: Illegal mining is a problem that the general public is becoming increasingly concerned about. It is common in Africa, South America, and parts of Asia. It has negative effects on the environment, including radiation risks, destruction of native flora and fauna, pollution, and mercury pollution from artisanal gold mining.

Environmental crime is at least as terrible as any other crime now plaguing society. Environmental crime, with very few exceptions, is defined by organised networks, permeable borders, illegal migration, money laundering, corruption, and the exploitation of disadvantaged populations. It is also perpetrated in violation of numerous international treaties for financial gain. Wildlife offenders are just as brutal as any other criminals, and their tools of the trade include intimidation, violation of human rights, impunity, murder, and physical violence.

Many areas of international development operations show signs of environmental criminality. Environmental crime is linked to and made worse by the problems addressed by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which are "affecting development, peace, security, and human rights." 1 Some of these issues have been on the table for a while, but only recently have enforcement authorities around the world started to acknowledge the role that organised criminal networks play in environmental crime. Organised gangs that exploit natural resources and destroy habitats are increasingly responsible for illicit logging and wildlife trafficking, which further endangers vulnerable species and ecosystems. These groups also strip communities of their livelihoods. 

By using ozone-depleting compounds illegally, we are destroying the Earth's ability to block the sun, which increases the amount of ultraviolet light that reaches the planet's surface and raises the risk of skin cancer and lowers plant production.

Natural disasters are happening more frequently than ever, and because of the expanding population, they have more severe effects.

The effects of such calamities would be less severe if forests had not been cut down, causing flooding and landslides, and mangroves had not been removed for development, leaving coastal areas without any natural defence against erosion or storms. Moreover, sea levels rise as a result of global warming, causing flooding. The extinction of species can arise from increased pressure on fragile flora and fauna, and habitat loss causes some species to go extinct before they are even known to exist.

The world's most urgent security and economic concern, climate change, has also been linked to environmental criminality in the forestry industry as a key cause.

Conclusion and Recommendations:

Major gaps in the response to environmental crime were found by the UN Environment research. A list of deficiencies was provided, including a lack of information, knowledge, and awareness; a lack of and limited application of legislation; a lack of institutional will and governance; a lack of capacity in the chain of enforcement; a lack of national and international cooperation and information sharing among authorities; and a lack of engagement with private actors and local communities.

To fill those gaps, the international community must revive programmes against environmental crime, begin coordinated action, share information, recognise environmental crimes as a significant danger to peace and sustainable development, and enhance the environmental rule of law at all levels. UN Environment has created enforcement recommendations to assist national agencies in upholding environmental laws, which helps countries establish robust legal frameworks against environmental crime.

Also, it enhances the capabilities of all parties engaged in environmental enforcement, including law enforcement, prosecutors, and customs.

For environmental crime to be reduced, there needs to be better cooperation between law enforcement and political will. Parties, pertinent government ministries, specialised groups, and enforcement agencies all have a crucial role to play in combating environmental crime across its spectrum and should immediately put these measures into place:

Recognize that, in contrast to some other types of crime, environmental crime is an urgent worldwide issue that demands a significant, serious, and ongoing response.

Recognize that corruption thrives in the environmental crime industry at all levels and that efforts to combat environmental crime will be hampered unless corrupt officials are dealt with. Cross-cutting resolutions on environmental crime and the Convention against Corruption should reflect this fact. Make a commitment to helping the countries with the greatest rates of crime and the most limited resources. Support intergovernmental organisations like the World Customs Organization (WCO), Interpol, and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in developing projects to establish and strengthen the capabilities of national and regional enforcement agencies and to offer technical support to divisions tasked with pursuing environmental crime.

In addition to the requirement for "closer international liaison between the Convention's institutions, national enforcement agencies, and existing intergovernmental bodies," which was acknowledged at the 15th Conference of Parties to CITES, develop greater synergy between mechanisms like the Convention on Transnational Crime and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Flora (CITES). Promote the use of "environmental specific" legislation along with already-existing national criminal statutes, proceeds of crime laws, and asset seizure laws against environmental offenders. Create new environmental crime enforcement units and border liaison offices, or take part in those that already exist. These units and offices would share intelligence with one another in order to create investigations and operations that target criminal networks.


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