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Major reforms to Belgian criminal code include ecocide and inciting suicide

08:44 07/11/2022

Major changes are coming to Belgium’s criminal code, among them the inclusion of ecocide and incitement to suicide.

Belgium’s criminal code was over 150 years old prior to modernisation efforts and the new version has finally been passed by the Council of Ministers.

The changes are made to both simplify the existing code and bring it up to date.

Ecocide refers to the crime of causing serious and permanent damage to the environment on a large scale, with penalties of 10 to 20 years in prison.

Belgium is a pioneer in the inclusion of the crime in its penal code when it comes to Europe.

The term first emerged in the 1970s during the Vietnam War, when the US army dumped huge quantities of Agent Orange, a highly toxic herbicide, in the country. It destroyed vegetation and crops, poisoned millions of people and caused numerous cancers and birth defects for years to come.

The term ecocide is also used regularly by environmental organisations such as Greenpeace, which uses it to describe the large-scale deforestation of the rainforest that took place under former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro.

Vietnam became the first country to introduce ecocide into its penal code back in 1998, followed by several countries of the former USSR, including Russia and Ukraine.

Incitement to suicide is also being added to Belgium’s penal code. Incitement can be argued in cases of suicide wherein the victim was harassed or experienced violence beforehand.

Suicide is now the second most common cause of death among 15-29 year olds, and recent cases that involved coercion or harassment that led to a victim’s suicide – particularly those cases involving social media – have become flash points for discussion about the criminal nature of incitement.

Belgium's new penal code has been approved by the Council of Ministers, but the rest of the legislative process is still to come. The new code is expected to come into force in 2025.

Written by Helen Lyons