The International Criminal Court said Thursday that it will start focusing on crimes linked to environmental destruction, the illegal exploitation of natural resources and unlawful dispossession of land.
The United Nations-backed court, which sits in The Hague, has mostly ruled on cases of genocide and war crimes since it was set up in 2002.
Now, in a move widely hailed by land rights activists, the court said that environmental destruction and land grabs could lead to governments and individuals being prosecuted for crimes against humanity.
The court, which is funded by governments and is regarded as the court of last resort, said it would now take into consideration crimes that have been traditionally underprosecuted.
Land grabbing has become increasingly common worldwide, with national and local governments allocating private companies tens of millions of hectares of land in the past 10 years.
The anti-corruption campaigners from Global Witness say this has led to many forced evictions, the cultural genocide of indigenous peoples, malnutrition and environmental destruction.
"This shift means it can start holding corporate executives to account for large-scale land grabbing and massive displacement happening during peacetime," Alice Harrison of Global Witness told Reuters.
The move 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.
The firm representing the Cambodian plaintiffs 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, hydroelectric dams or agribusiness firms, Global Witness said.
Some information for this report was contributed by Reuters.