Politics v Law: the Ecocide campaign is undeterred by Rio+20

Polly Higgins
Saturday, 30th June 2012

We can all be forgiven for thinking Rio+20 was a hopeless waste of time but Polly Higgins is carrying on undeterred. Here is her post-Rio report, a resolute message of hope, explaining why where politics fails, laws can offer solutions.

Where governments fail, the people must speak out – and we are. Rio+20 demonstrated the consummate failure of political ability to take the necessary steps to stop the demise of the very health and well-being of our Earth. The political leaders we elect have failed to put people and planet before profit.

There is reason for hope. The Rule of Law was one of the threads of hope at Rio; another was Youths. Bind these threads together we can create anew. Now is our moment to act to create ecological justice.

Leadership and Law

What now? We pushed for a leader to stand up and speak out in support of a law of Ecocide – it didn't happen. When there is an absence of leadership from our political leaders, the opportunity for new leadership can sometimes emerge elsewhere. I think that a different form of leadership will come, in particular, from youths and with that the potential for a dynamic emergence of something bigger and better. I'm not sure what precisely that will be, but I do know that Earth law is part of that future.

Big ideas always start out in the margins before they spread into the mainstream. Earth law and in particular the law of Ecocide is just that – a big idea worth spreading. One thing that Rio has demonstrated is that the law of Ecocide is no longer just a good idea – it is becoming a fully-worked piece of legislation which is ready to be implemented. All we need do is mobilise people to say that this must happen.

Rio was in some respects a success for us–- we put the Law of Ecocide very firmly on the map. The Youth pre-Rio Congress included Ecocide as one of their 20 actions for the next 12 months, and Ecocide was discussed at the World Congress of Law, Governance and Justice, garnering much support within the international legal community. No stone was left unturned and Sarah spoke very eloquently in the final session (you can read Louise Kulbicki's report here).

Using law to create corporate and state responsibility for the Earth begs the question: what law do we need? Achim Steiner spoke out before the Summit about why the Supreme Courts could make Rio+20 a success. Lord Carnwath of the UK Supreme Court wrote in the Guardian about how Rio+20 had missed an opportunity to emphasise how people can effect real change through courts and Stanley Johnson in The Guardian shone a light on Ecocide at the World Congress. The Huffington Post asked: Where politicians fail, can lawyers save the planet?

We at Eradicating Ecocide thank Bakary Kante of the United Nations Environment Programme who made the World Congress on Justice, Governance and Law such a success.

The Voice of The People

Of course it's not just what happens inside the confines of the official conferences that counts - what happens outside is equally important. Sarah took Ecocide into the People's Summit and met with many who are putting people and planet first.

Rio was a success for the people who went there to meet, mobilise and to seed out their ideas and build support. A palpable groundswell is building and now we can harness that wonderful energy of good-will and belief in what we are doing and make it into something truly great. I believe we can do that. I believe this is our moment to fill the leadership gap with something bigger and better, something that does not rely on UN government conferences. There is another way, and that way is driven by the people.

Some of the people who were there and who were speaking out included the courageous T'kaia Blaney who is just aged 11 and called for an Earth Revolution, Orielle Osprey Lake of the Women's Earth and Climate Caucus made sure the voice of women was heard, and Doris Ragetti of Rights of Mother Earth who delivered our scroll of Love Letters to the Earth, along with a letter that had 116,758 individual signatures from 113 nations plus signatures of leaders from 189 organisations representing 644,042 people who support the call for Earth Rights. The good news is that Paragraph 39 of the final Rio document included the wording "the rights of nature":

"We recognize that the planet Earth and its ecosystems are our home and that Mother Earth is a common expression in a number of countries and regions and we note that some countries recognize the rights of nature in the context of the promotion of sustainable development. We are convinced that in order to achieve a just balance among the economic, social and environment needs of present and future generations, it is necessary to promote harmony with nature."

The final document runs to 53 pages. What was notable was the absence of certain issues that had been on the table. The New Zealand Herald picked up the fact that a call to end subsidies for fossil fuels was removed from the final text and there was a complete absence of commitments to fight climate change. Where politics fail, law could offer a solution. Naming us "radical" lawyers for proposing that ecocide should be made a crime, the article went on to say that we are "only radical in the sense that a group of lawyers agitating for a law against genocide would have been seen as radical in 1935".

Maybe just maybe what we are seeing is the emergence of a radical law.

Taking the Rule of Law to the European Parliament

On 27th June I spoke with MEPs in the European parliament. Now is a crucial time for tackling the role of multinational corporations in the destruction of the planet.

For more information, to support the campaign and to receive regular updates see http://www.eradicatingecocide.com/