Green Cross statement on meeting: Call for the creation of European and International Criminal Courts for the Environment.

On 30 January, 2014, Green Cross International Chief Operating Officer Adam Koniuszewski (pictured second from right) spoke at this unique conference organised by the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group.

Adam Koniuszewski, GCI, Green CrossFull text of speech follows:

Greetings to you ladies and gentlemen, it is a great pleasure for me to be here today and address you on behalf of Green Cross on the call to create a criminal court for the Environment. President Gorbachev, who cannot join us due to medical reasons, sends his best regards and his wishes of success for the meeting in the hope that this will move us one step closer towards the creation of a legal framework to address crimes against the environment. President Gorbachev specifically asked me to thank Corinne Lepage for the invitation to participate in this forum and to praise her leadership and commitment to this agenda.

So let me begin by saying that today, the true dimensions of the environmental crisis can no longer be ignored:

  • The Millennium Ecosystems Assessment report said that we are destroying the life-support systems of the planet at an alarming rate.
  • Science tells us that we are polluting air, water and soil to the extent that human health and other species are at risk.
  • Climate change is accelerating with melting glaciers, flooding coastal regions and increasingly devastating extreme weather events.
  • According to a recent WHO report, avoidable environmental hazards already contribute to diseases and injuries that kill over 13m people every per year.  

And still, economic development is consistently prioritised over the environment, and the balance between the two is presented as a zero-sum game.  In reality, development and the environment are entirely intertwined, and by choosing one over the other we end up undermining both. This is the situation we find ourselves in: unprecedented and relentless environmental degradation and the over-exploitation of resources on a scale that affects the behavior of the ecological and physical systems of the planet.  Science and evidence in the real world increasingly confirm that to continue on the present business as usual path of environmentally destructive, inequitable, resource and energy-intensive development is no longer possible.  

The situation is not only unsustainable – it is dangerous. We are faced with a global emergency and yet questions of ecology are routinely side-lined, ignored and forgotten in all areas of politics and law despite decades of  campaigning by the environmental movement and the growing concerns of citizens around the world. For over 20 years, Green Cross has worked for the recognition of the vital importance of nature for human wellbeing and security – insisting that it is not possible to separate humanitarian, economic and environmental challenges.  It was this firm belief that led to the creation of Green Cross as a ‘Red Cross for the Environment’ back in 1993.

And while it is undeniable that international environmental law has progressed in the past two decades, threats to the environment and their terrible consequences for humanity are still not being properly acknowledged. The challenge of the 21st century is to reverse this process and ensure compliance with polluter-pays principles and the enforcement of proportionate sanctions to protect ecology and people. Of the missing links in international law and governance, the recognition and tackling of environmental crime is high on the list and hence Green Cross supports the call for the creation of criminal courts for crimes against the environment.

Principle 13 of the Rio 92 Declaration provides that ‘states will develop national laws regarding liability and compensation for victims of pollution and other environmental damage’, but in reality this rarely happens because many environmental agreements do not have proper instruments for enforcement. It is telling that the few that mandate state parties to punish environmental crimes – such as the Basel Convention on Hazardous Waste or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) – are considered among the most effective. So a stronger legal and institutional framework for crimes against the environment at the European and International levels can help address these weaknesses and loopholes.

Fortunately, as evidenced by this gathering and by the growing number of campaigns by citizens around the world, the tide is turning against this impunity.
And so the human right to live in a healthy environment, for which Green Cross has campaigned over the years, is increasingly recognised at all levels.
And progress is being made: in the sphere of public opinion, in the legal and academic worlds, and – more slowly – in the political arena. We are moving forward.   
In France, largely thanks to Corinne Lepage, a long awaited ground-breaking result was achieved in 2012 regarding the Erika oil spill. France’s highest court confirmed the verdict of negligence passed against

Total over the 20,000 tons of oil spilled after the wreck of the oil tanker and upheld the maximum fine of 375,000 euros (a pitifully low sum). But also ordered to pay 200 million euros in damages including several million for environmental damages – the first compensation of this kind awarded in France.   

This is a positive development that should now be reinforced by the strengthening of EU law so that no actor involved in this kind of negligence can be immune from liability.  It is only with real sanctions, proportional fines, and the ability to enforce that we will have a truly effective EU criminal legal framework them can serve as an effective tool for environmental protection.

Awareness of environmental crime is also growing in institutions such as INTERPOL, which now runs several international programs to address illegal logging, pirate fishing and toxic waste trafficking. It is now clear that these crimes are often linked with other organised crimes, like money laundering and drug trafficking, and have far reaching consequences in terms of their impacts on ecosystems, communities and security.

Another vital area of progress is in citizen engagement. Wider media reporting of environmental crimes, and increased concern about climate change and resource depletion, is leading to public campaigns for the recognition of ‘ecocide’ as a crime against peace, and the need for an international criminal court for the environment that we are discussing here today. Citizens are better informed no longer willing to tolerate this situation. Public pressure is a growing force behind this movement for greater environmental justice and politicians are well advised to take notice.

So let me conclude by quoting President Gorbachev in saying that we need a Glasnost and a Perestroika for the environment. For Green Cross this means a transformation of our economic and development model to stop and reverse the degradation of planetary ecosystems and the overexploitation of natural resources. This entails new business models, a circular economy, dramatic increases of energy and resource efficiency, taxing scarce resources rather then labour – to name just a few. A strong legal framework for the environment and institutions like the European and International Environmental Courts can play a central role in this process.

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Flickr Photostream of the event