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An aerial photograph of deforestation in progress

The COVID-19 pandemic and ecological connectivity

Janine Natalya Clark, University of Birmingham.                


I frequently think about the women and men who have participated in my European Research Council funded project, A Comparative Study of Resilience in Survivors of War Rape and Sexual Violence: New Directions for Transitional Justice. All of them experienced some form of conflict-related sexual violence (most commonly rape), as well as other related traumas and (often ongoing) adversities. I wonder how they are coping in the middle of a global pandemic and how it has affected their lives. I feel frustrated that some of the fieldwork that had been planned for the coming months will need to be done remotely. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has helped me to conceptualize what an ecological reframing of transitional justice – the project’s overall aim – might look like.

While living under lockdown, I started to reflect on the possible implications of the pandemic for transitional justice and international criminal law more broadly. COVID-19 can provide a cover for increased violence and human rights abuses; it can create new challenges for institutions seeking to address impunity; it enhances inequalities that problematize the very notion of ‘justice’. I decided to focus more squarely on the pandemic itself (and its origins) as my point of departure. COVID-19 is a zoonosis; it was transferred from an animal to a human. Zoonoses thus reflect ecological connectivity – a concept that broadly refers to the inter-connections between different elements of an ecosystem, such as land and sea or mangroves and coral reefs. In relation to both COVID-19 and zoonoses more generally, however, ecological connectivity alone does not tell the entire story, because the zoonotic relationship between animals and humans is not simply one way.  

The key point is that human activities – from deforestation and landscape fragmentation to illegal trafficking of animals and intensive farming – have created new opportunities for zoonotic diseases, by helping to align the three core elements needed for disease transmission – namely a pathogen, a host and a vector (intermediary). I therefore conceptualize the pandemic as a violation of ecological connectivity. This idea, in turn, is pivotal to the linkage that I make between COVID-19, international criminal law and transitional justice.

My argument, in short, is that the crimes and atrocities that come to the attention of international criminal law and transitional justice can themselves be theorized, in part, as violations of ecological connectivity. Human rights abuses, for example, can rupture the ecological connectivity between individuals and their land, due to population displacement, river pollution, etc. More broadly, such violations can sever or damage the connectivities between individuals and their social ecologies, including their families and communities. The stigmatization that some victims-survivors of sexual violence experience is a poignant example. Ultimately, the theorization of war crimes and human rights abuses as themselves constituting violations of ecological connectivity lays the basis for thinking more ecologically about transitional justice (and international criminal law) – and more relationally about the harms that they seek to address. This means giving greater attention to the relational and systemic legacies of war and armed conflict, both in the very specific sense of environmental damage and in the extended sense of damage to social ecosystems.

Published in the Journal of International Criminal Justice (December 2020)