International environmental justice court needed, summit participants say

by Laura Gauchalla | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 23 April 2010 10:32 GMT

By Laura Guachalla

COCHABAMBA, Bolivia (AlertNet) Â? A "people's agreement" reached at an alternative climate change summit this week calls for the creation of an international "climate and environmental justice" court with binding legal power to sanction those who contribute in unwarranted ways to climate change.

Such a body is needed in the short term to fight again the impunity enjoyed by major emitters of climate-changing gases, said experts and activists at the People's World Conference on Climate Change and Mother Earth Rights, held this week in Cochabamba.

"I think this court is completely feasible. Not only that, it is urgent and indispensable," said Miguel D'Escoto, a former president of the United Nations.

The court, as envisioned, would have the capacity to restrain, prosecute and punish states, companies and people who, by act or omission, make major contributions to climate change.

"Social pressure is fundamental in order to achieve the creation of this court," said Francois Houtart, a Belgian sociologist who said he believed the court should be part of the United Nations structure.

Right now, there are few consequences facing those who create great environmental threats, said Naomi Klein, a Canadian author and activist.

"We need it," said Klein of the court. "If there is an enormous amount of pressure exerted from inside the countries, it can happen."

Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who won a 1980 Nobel Peace Prize in part for leading trade protests, urged that environmental crimes be formally recognized as crimes against humanity. He denounced wealthy industrialized countries for causing the growing climate crisis, but warned that developing countries must also work to contribute as little as possible to the problem.

One key element of any court, he said, is that "people should be able to appeal directly to this court without having to rely on their governments." As the court is envisioned, complaints could be submitted by state bodies, non-governmental organizations, including social movements, and individuals.

Some precedents for an environmental justice court can be found in the International Criminal Court, the European Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, among others, experts said.

"There is a very solid judicial basis to talk about the justice climate court," said Jose Antonio Martin Pallin, a Spanish Supreme Court judge.

"A new legal framework is not needed. Let's use the laws of our countries and the international treaties already signed" as a legal basis for the court, added Perez Esquivel.

The court would be based on the principle that climate change is a crime against humanity and nature, participants said. For it to be effective, it would have to be able to issue binding judgments and have an enforcement mechanism, though arbitration could also play a role in resolving conflicts.

Laura Guachalla is a Bolivia-based freelance reporter who writes on issues including climate change and sustainable development.