South American Stories (3): Quito: Trials and Tribunals
The odd thing is that you can go to jail for smoking the wrong kind of cigarette or swiping a sweater from a store – but you can get away scot-free after demolishing a forest, destroying a mountain or poisoning the water that thousands of people (and other creatures) rely on for their very lives. The Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature wants to change that.
Welcome to the historic opening of the International Ethics Tribunal on the Rights of Nature.
The Tribunal was convened at the conclusion of the week-long Global Summit on the Rights of Nature in January, 2014 in Ecuador. As special Earth Prosecutor, Ecuadorian law professor Ramiro Ávila called witnesses to present nine cases involving “violations of and crimes against rights of nature” under the Universal Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth.
The nine cases included the 2010 Deepwater Horizon (BP) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; the practice of fracking in the United States; the Chevron-Texaco oil contamination in Ecuador’s rainforest; massive coal production that endangers Australia’s Great Barrier Reef; Ecuador’s broken Yasuní-ITT agreement; mega-mining of copper in the Amazon; genetic modification of crops around the world; and government and corporate actions blocking action on global climate change
The cases were heard by a 10-member international panel of distinguished judges. Four were from Ecuador: Alberto Acosta, economist and former president of Ecuador’s constitutional assembly; Blanca Chancoso, Kichwa leader and educator from Cotacachi; Julio César Trujillo, constitutional lawyer for Yasunidos, Ecuador; and Elsie Monge, human rights activist and president two NGOs in Ecuador. Two were indigenous North Americans: Tom Goldtooth of Minnesota, director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, and celebrated Canadian actress Tantoo Cardinal, (Dances with Wolves). Others included Cormac Cullinan, lawyer and author (Wild Law) from Cape Town, South Africa; Atossa Soltani, founder and director of Amazon Watch, USA; and Enrique Viale, an environmental lawyer from Buenos Aires, Argentina. (We have recorded Green Interviews with Acosta, Cullinan and Soltani, and we’ll be releasing them over the coming months.)
The Tribunal ruled the cases admissible for full consideration by a similarly constituted ethical body to be convened as part of the new – and permanent – World Tribunal for Rights of Nature. A full trial is expected to take place at the COP-20 climate-change conference at Lima, Peru, in December 2014.
The Tribunal has no legal authority, of course – or at least, not yet. But this is the way that advances in law and governance happen. The Universal Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth has no legal standing either — but in the years since it was drafted and presented to the world, it has won widespread acceptance as an authentic expression of the growing human desire to extend new protections and respect to Mother Nature.
By the same token, the Tribunal has no power to compel – but it has enormous power to publicize and to persuade. And that’s a very useful first step.