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Do we need an International Court for the Environment?

November 29, 2008

I attended an interesting symposium last night at the British Library in which it was argued that the world urgently needs an international court for the environment along the lines of the International Court of Human Rights and of Justice. The reason: Kyoto is not working – it is not delivering emissions reductions.

UK lawyer Stephen Hockman, a member of Client Earth, who organised the event, said that he envisages such an institution not as a court in the traditional sense, although it would have a judicial role, but as a body that could decide on how environmental agreements should be implemented, adjudicate on differences of interpretation of environmental law and, in cases of non-compliance, rule on sanctions, etc. It’s not the first time such an idea has been mooted, but it is especially prescient on the eve of the Poznan climate meeting, and Hockman argued that the UN negotiations should be held in parallel with discussions about how agreements that emerge would be implemented and complied with, including the court idea.

I thought the concept was an interesting one, but in contrast to another of the attendees, I became less and less persuaded by its proponents as the symposium wore on. For a start, Hockman and his fellow speakers environmental journalist Oliver Tickell and Edinburgh politician Nigel Griffithsseemed in disagreement over what exactly they were proposing: a regulatory agency or a government advisory, a punitive court or all three. In fact the whole scheme seemed as sketchy as if the trio had conjured it up the previous evening in a pub over a couple of pints.

That’s not to knock the idea – some of the best and most brilliant concepts have arisen from a sketch on the back of the beer mat. But pub philosophy has no place in the current international climate talks where time is too precious to indulge the whimsy. It’s tricky enough to get the common sense, well-researched and thoroughly backed-up individual sentences in a document agreed. Come on guys, don’t waste our time!

I do think it is essential for there to exist some sort of compulsion for states, individuals and corporations to adhere to environmental protection agreements. I am not sure the proposed international court (whatever exactly that is) is the best way to do this. We already have international treaties to protect human rights and groups, such as the Inuit of Alaska are using this in legal action against climate abuse. Courts, I think, have the greatest power where they are closest to the people whose democratic votes they uphold. So I think governments should include or strengthen existing laws covering denigration of the environment – especially for cases specific to that locality – and local courts should bolster this with appropriately tough sentences for offenders. Having said that, I think that in situations involving state v. state dispute, such as river flow between India and Pakistan, or misuse of international aquifers, I think human rights laws should be properly invoked under a specialist body of respected leaders and scientists.

I think we could learn a lot from the successes and failures of the ozone-protecting CFC ban (except in China…) and the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. What do you think?

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