An International Court to Try Ecological Crimes?

UNITED NATIONS - As the United Nations takes an increasingly dominant role in guiding the climate change debate, there is renewed interest in a longstanding proposal for the creation of an international court to try environmental crimes.

But some diplomats and environmentalists are sceptical whether such a court will have the political support of the overwhelming majority of the U.N.'s 192 member states for it to be a reality.

"It took ages for the creation of an international war crimes tribunal," says one Third World diplomat, "and a world court for environmental crimes can take generations."

Satish Kumar, an avowed environmentalist and editor of the London-based environmental magazine Resurgence, is a strong advocate of such a court.

"We have no right to make waste," he argues. "And if I dump my waste on your house, it's a crime. You can take me to court."

"But if we put our waste on nature, nature can't take us to court? Nature should have a right to take us to court. And the United Nations should establish a nature court," Kumar told IPS.

He pointed out that environmental crimes -- from the dumping of toxic wastes to the military destruction of natural resources -- should be deemed "crimes against nature".

Dr. Franoise Burhenne-Guilmin, senior counsel at the Environmental Law Centre of the Switzerland-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), thinks the proposal may hit legal and logistical snags.

"IUCN has never taken a formal position on this matter, but members of the Commission on Environmental Law (CEL) have discussed the issue in the past," he told IPS.

He pointed out that the idea of a specific international court for environmental crimes was not supported by the CEL on the basis that they thought it would not be feasible.

"To establish such a court, people would need to agree on what constitutes an environmental crime," Burhenne-Guilmin said.

Even if such a court were established, the rules which would have to be put in place in order for it to function would be very difficult to agree on, he added.

In recent years, some of the cases involving "environmental damages" have been tried in local courts because of the absence of an international judicial body.

A landmark environmental case involved the spilling of over 11 million gallons of crude oil when the oil tanker Valdez hit a reef. A court in Anchorage, Alaska, awarded a record five billion dollars in damages to some 34,000 fishermen whose livelihoods were affected by the oil spill spread over 1,500 miles of the Alaskan coastline.

The award was later reduced by half by a U.S. appeals court. The damages were against Exxon Mobil Corporation, which appealed the ruling at several judicial levels.

And more recently, a privately owned commodity trader was fined about 200 million dollars for dumping toxic waste off the coast of Cote d'Ivoire. The payment was described as one of the largest for environmental damage in Africa.

Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), told reporters last week that dramatic changes in consumer lifestyles could make a great difference, "though that did not mean that humankind had to go back to the stone age".

Rather, he said, it was time to start evaluating "the size of the footprint that humans were imposing on ecosystems through carbon dioxide emissions and other impacts."

Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) said the fact that over 80 world leaders were meeting Monday at the United Nations at a high-level summit on climate change was "a sign of growing consensus on the need for the international community to act on climate change."

An equally important meeting, under the auspices of the United Nations, is also scheduled to take place in Bali, Indonesia in December, he added.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who initiated Monday's summit, says that climate change will be one of the top priorities during his five-year tenure in office.

But Kumar, editor of Resurgence, sounds very sceptical of the U.N. role in global environment.

"The U.N. approach to environment is very limited and rather shallow because the United Nations still thinks that the environment is there for the benefit of human kind and therefore we need to protect the environment," he told IPS.

This is a very utilitarian approach. Human beings are seen as in charge, as superior and somehow more important than all other species, he pointed out.

"This is a very old and out of date concept. The United Nations needs to see environment and ecology and humanity as one interconnected and inter-dependent web of life," Kumar said.

And human beings are no more important and no more superior than animals, plants, forests, rivers, oceans -- and they have intrinsic value.

"The United Nations does not accept the intrinsic value of the natural world. It says the value of the environment is only in relation to its usefulness to humans. That's a very anthropocentric, very human-centred, and a very narrow view," he added.

Therefore, the United Nations needs to do a lot of work to embrace this bigger vision which has a more respect and reverence and recognition of the intrinsic value of all living beings and humanity as part of it, he declared.

Asked if he was blaming member states or the U.N. Secretariat, Kumar said: "I think it's the Secretariat, because member states have no one single view."

He said each member state has its own particular emphasis and its own particular angle. The Secretariat can bring together a cohesive and more holistic view. "And the Secretariat lacks that holistic view and that's where I think the United Nations is weak."

(c) 2007 IPS - Inter Press Service

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