Ecological Debt Tribunal – Holding Polluters Accountable

climate change Pollution accountability COP17
Wednesday, 14 December, 2011 - 08:31

The author argues for the need to establish a permanent International People’s Tribunal on Ecological Debt, in the absence of an international legal framework to prevent and punish environmental polluters

The faith community is among key stakeholders calling for the establishment of a permanent International People’s Tribunal on Ecological Debt. Such a tribunal would hold environmental violators accountable for the climate change they are causing in local communities, particularly in developing nations.

There are many definitions for ecological debt. The concept highlights the disparity between industrialised nations, which consume a greater share of the global resource pool, and developing nations, who have larger populations, but consume fewer resources and produce less waste.

Spurred on by social movements from relatively poor countries, many government officials have pointed out at the 17th Congress of the Parties (COP17) meeting that the principle of shared responsibility demands that rich nations go beyond donations or adaptation credits. They should make reparations that recognise their ecological debt for excessive emissions over several decades.

Based on this concept, the permanent tribunal would hold hearings on cases brought by states or local communities against companies they say violated people’s rights through environmental degradation. The hearings would then determine the level of compensation.

However, tribunals need not be the only route to bring justice. People’s tribunals have been held before and have done little to deter the transnational companies, international financial corporations and others. It would be progressive to pursue other methods to ensure that those who have committed crimes against the environment and consequently on humanity, are made to pay.

This was the main message that came out of a parallel session held by the Economic Justice Network (EJN), the World Council of Churches, Jubilee South, Observatorio de la Deuda en la Globalisation, Accion Ecologica, Oilwatch and the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance on 7 December 2011 on the sidelines of COP17. EJN coordinates Councils of Churches from 12 Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) member states.

Currently there is no international legal framework to prevent and punish climate and environmental crimes, hence a demand for the creation of an international tribunal. The International Climate and Environmental Justice Tribunal would have the legally binding capacity to prevent, judge, and punish those states, companies, and individuals that pollute and cause climate change by their actions or omissions.

However, missing from the otherwise vibrant meeting was a discussion on the gender implications of ecological debt. Also glaringly absent from all the presentations and the debate that ensued was an analysis of how establishing a permanent People’s Tribunal would differently affect the lives of women and men.

The Jubilee South campaign acknowledges that climate change is one of the greatest problems humankind will face, not only due to its direct impacts, but also because other existing problems will become more serious, such as poverty, famine, violence and gender inequality.

There is need for strong policy measures and mobilisation of all parties involved. The meeting referred to mobilising for the upcoming Rio Plus 20 Conference on Climate Change taking place in Rio de Janeiro in 2012. The question remains how voices of women, particularly from developing nations who are often not part of organised communities, can be heard, as well as how to ensure their cases make it to the court if ever established.

As Wahu Kaara from the Kenya Debt Relief Network mentioned, women are a critical mass who if galvanised, can form a formidable force to change the way markets work. They have innovative and creative responses to overcoming the challenges they face around regimes of food and water, housing, energy, transport and migration. Men are usually absent from home as they go out in search of work, for example, in the mines.

At a different session on Macro-economics for Economic and Environmental Justice convened by EJN on 8 December 2011, there was an acknowledgement that the policy framework has to shift to ensure sustainability of humanity. The results of neo-liberal macroeconomic policies are widening the inequality gap, increasing poverty and environmental destruction. For women this is a double tragedy.

The meeting lamented the lack of civil society to capitalise on this and more importantly noted that very few gender organisations are working on economic climate justice issues. It is a space that networks such as the Southern Africa Gender Protocol Alliance should occupy and begin to influence.

- Loveness Jambaya Nyakujarah is the Alliance and Partnerships Manager at Gender Links. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service and African Woman and Child Feature Service special series for the Sixteen Days of Activism on Gender Violence and COP 17 Conference.

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