The International Criminal Court (ICC) said on Thursday it would start focusing on crimes linked to environmental destruction, the illegal exploitation of natural resources and unlawful dispossession of land in a move hailed by land rights activists.
Company executives or politicians could now be held responsible under international law for illegal land deals which violently displace residents following the shift, campaigners and lawyers said.
Since it was set up under the 1998 Rome Statue, the Hague-based court has focused on prosecuting four main crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression.
Environmental crimes will now be considered in investigations of cases that fall within the ICC's existing remit, according to Global Diligence LLP, a London-based human rights law firm said in a statement.
Campaigners and human rights lawyers said the move reflects increasing global recognition of the severity of environmental crimes. It also allows victims to seek justice through the international criminal justice system if their complaints are not heard in national courts.
"The ICC is adapting to modern dynamics of conflict," Alice Harrison from the UK-based campaign group Global Witness told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"This shift means it can start holding corporate executives to account for large-scale land grabbing and massive displacement happening during peace time."
The shift comes ahead of a decision by ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda on whether to investigate a case filed by human rights lawyers in 2014 accusing Cambodian officials and businessmen of engaging in illegal land dispossession.
Global Diligence LLP, the firm representing the Cambodian plantiffs, said the ICC's policy shift opens the door for the case to be investigated by the court.
Cambodia's government has dismissed the case as politically motivated and based on "fake numbers of people being affected by land grabbing".
Last year was the deadliest on record for land rights campaigners with more than three people killed each week in conflicts over territory with mining companies, loggers, hydro-electric dams or agribusiness firms, Global Witness said.
Reporting by Chris Arsenault; Editing by Katie Nguyen