Valérie Cabanes: “Without political visionaries who are willing to defy special interests, humanity doesn’t stand a chance”

Valérie Cabanes: “Without political visionaries who are willing to defy special interests, humanity doesn't stand a chance”

The Niger Delta is one of the most polluted regions in the world due to the negligence of the oil industry. Oil and gas multinational Shell is one of the companies to have been repeatedly accused of responsibility for the oil spills that have been damaging Nigeria’s ecosystems for decades.

(Luka Tomac/Friends of the Earth International/Jérôme Paconi )

In 2015, a district court in the Netherlands issued a historic verdict in favour of environmental NGOs who sued the Dutch government to compel it to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent by 2020. The verdict was upheld on appeal last year. While the decision does not impose any sanctions, the courts have now become an important tool for environmental activists.

Valérie Cabanes, a lawyer specialising in international law and one of the founders of the movement End Ecocide on Earth, chose her field to fight for the protection of the planet. In late 2018, she teamed with several NGOs to file a suit against the French government for inaction on climate change. L’affaire du siècle, the petition supporting the initiative, received more than two million signatures, one million of them in just three days. But her primary focus is the fight to get the International Criminal Court to recognise ecocide as an international crime. The following is an interview with the nature rights activist.

What is ecocide?

The term was first recorded when a biologist who had written a thesis on insecticides discovered that his work had been used to produce Agent Orange, the dioxin that the United States military dropped over Vietnam’s forests. He claimed that the US military was committing ecocide because it was destroying the environment and threatening the living conditions of local populations over the long term. This proved to be true: children are still being born today with deformities related to soil contamination.

When the International Criminal Court was founded with the adoption of the Rome Statute in 1998, an article was proposed on environmental crimes against human security and peace. It was removed, however, under pressure from the United States, France, Great Britain and the Netherlands.

In 2013, through the movement End Ecocide on Earth, we launched an European Citizens’ Initiative on the crime of ecocide. We’ve proposed a very precise definition of ecocide as extensive damage to an ecosystem or environmental commons such as oceans, large old-growth forests, the atmosphere, transboundary rivers, etc. that would allow them to be defended in court when they are threatened.

How can the harm done to an ecological system be quantified?

We’ve chosen to use the concept of planetary boundaries, which outlines nine boundaries that must not be exceeded in order to prevent disaster. If these thresholds are crossed, a judge could decide to stop an industrial project before it goes into operation as a preventative measure or determine whether decision-makers had any knowledge of the consequences of their activities.

There is ample evidence, for example, that oil companies have long been aware of connection between fossil fuels and climate change. Their response has been to finance a campaign of misinformation and encourage climate-scepticism.

What obstacles currently stand in the way of introducing this concept into international law?

Many political and economic leaders continue to base public policy on the dogma of growth and blind faith in the power of technology to save us all. This is a criminal attitude. To the extent that technology can create solutions, it will only benefit a small number of individuals, especially the most affluent. This approach is not at all based on respect for human dignity and equal opportunity and is therefore contrary to the philosophy of human rights.

Finally, we are faced with the reality of political terms, which are generally short, meaning that politicians prioritise short-term problems rather than addressing the long-term problems that affect all of us. Without political visionaries who are willing to defy special interests, we don’t stand a chance.

Is impunity for economic actors and multinationals greater than for countries?

In international law, multinationals benefit from a form of impunity since they are not bound by international conventions. When they have a dispute with governments, they can request that private arbitration tribunals be set up. They are thus not systematically held accountable for their actions before the International Criminal Court. They also have armies of lawyers, which makes it very difficult and onerous for citizens to sue them.

Fortunately, there has been some progress. The French Law on the Corporate Duty of Vigilance is an example to follow. It recognises the liability of legal entities and executive officers even when they operate outside of French territory. When disasters occur through subsidiaries, the chain of accountability can extend back to a company’s headquarters.

Aren’t simple fines likely to be painless for large companies, as is the case with tax evasion, where it is often in a company’s interest to cheat given the low risks they face?

Indeed, most high-risk companies now include fines in their budgets in anticipation of disasters that might occur. In the case of the Erika disaster [named after the oil tanker that sank off the coast of France in 1999 causing a major oil spill], Total was forced to pay €200 million in compensation. That same year, they made €12 billion in profits. When you compare the two sums it’s absurd. It won’t stop them from continuing their activities. The main problem, however, is that corporate executives cannot be held criminally liable. Even in the event of an environmental disaster, the head of a multinational cannot go to jail.

In countries that have adopted laws recognising the rights of nature, such as Bolivia and Ecuador since 2008, this is not the case. In 2017 there was a very interesting case in Ecuador where a Chinese vessel was detained in the Galapagos Islands with more than 6,000 dead sharks on board. In a trial conducted on the sharks’ behalf, the judge determined that the ship’s activities were criminal. The captain and crew were sentenced to prison terms, the ship’s owner was charged a heavy fine and the ship was destroyed. Until ecocide is recognised as a crime, this type of verdict will be impossible in the West.

Much of the current discussion around climate change avoids pointing the finger at those most responsible for it. Doesn’t the idea that each of us has to take our share of the responsibility shift responsibility away from the real economic players?

When we teamed with several NGOs to take the French government to court for their inaction on climate change, the response from Emmanuel Macron’s government was “we are doing everything we can but it’s up to citizens to be more responsible and take action in support of energy transition.” We thought “you’ve got to be joking!”

They remain caught in the economic logic of growth. They believe they can maintain a thriving economic system by developing renewable energy. To do this they have to encourage citizens to invest in solar panels and hybrid or electric vehicles. However, we now know that this will not be enough to slow down climate change and halt the erosion of biodiversity. If we continue to consume as much as we do, even if we adopt clean technologies, we will remain in the logic of predation and overexploitation of natural resources and rare minerals. We have to completely rethink our patterns of consumption. And the economic system will not be happy with that.

Is there no conscience on the part of our leaders regarding these issues? The problem of access to water in particular is likely to cause major conflicts.

Politicians have lost control of the economic sector. Multinationals are the ones who make laws because they are the ones that create jobs. The policies in place are only there to make it easier for them.

With regard to conflicts, countries are already preparing for them. On the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO), the American military is preparing for wars over water or resulting from climate and environmental change. The report submitted to the US military forecasts major pandemics in just 20 years. But our leaders don’t tell the people anything for fear of frightening them. They’re not slowing down, simply preparing for chaos, and that is extremely disturbing.

This story has been translated from French.