The 4th session of the International Rights of Nature Tribunal, held concurrently with the 23rd United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP23), exposed the significant role which legal systems play in enabling climate change and global environmental degradation. The Tribunal heard seven cases from around the world which collectively demonstrated that global and national climate change commitments cannot be met without fundamental changes to the legal systems which legalise the activities that cause climate change and the destruction of the ecological systems on which life depends. This is a global problem – one of the cases concerned a massive lignite mine approximately 50 kms from the COP 23 negotiations.
The Bonn Tribunal consisted of 9 judges from 7 countries, and was presided over by the prominent indigenous climate and environmental justice leader, Tom Mato Awanyankapi Goldtooth. Over the course of two days, 53 people from 19 countries speaking over 7 languages presented cases regarding violations of the rights of Nature. A range of experts who testified before the Tribunal explained that whatever is agreed at the COP 23 and subsequent meetings, action to combat climate change will be ineffective while governments continue to authorise coal mines, oil wells and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), and the mining of groundwater, and allow corporations to use investor state dispute settlement mechanisms in trade agreements to prevent the taking of effective measures to protect life.
Witnesses gave first-hand accounts of what it is like to live near fracking operations, oil wells and refineries, and coal mines, about how those who defend Mother Earth are persecuted, attacked, criminalised and have their homes burnt. It heard of the anguish of indigenous and other peoples from local communities who live in intimacy with Nature as it is destroyed by roads, mines or industrial agriculture in order to benefit a small elite.
Indigenous peoples from around the world played a prominent role throughout the Tribunal as experts and witnesses. The Tribunal opened with deeply moving ceremonies and evocations of Mother Earth by representatives of the Sámi people of Europe, the Sarayaku community in the Ecuadorian Amazon, and the indigenous peoples of North America. Indigenous peoples from Africa, Russia, Bolivia, Ecuador, French Guyana, and the USA/Turtle Island presented testimonies that drew the Tribunal’s attention to the sacredness of Earth – a dimensions ignored in the COP 23 negotiations.
The Tribunal found that in each of the seven cases, serious and systematic violations of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth (UDRME) had occurred, often accompanied by human rights violations, and in several cases the harm was so severe as to constitute ecocide. In each case the legal system did not provide adequate remedies to prevent on-going harm. In most cases the harm was caused by activities such as deforestation and mining which could only take place because they had been authorised by law. It was abundantly clear those legal systems that elevate property rights and the rights of corporation above the rights of water, air and ecosystems to exist and contribute to the ecological health of the planet, are exacerbating climate change by clothing destructive activities in a cloak of legal legitimacy. The Tribunal noted that carbon, biological and conservation offsets and ecosystem services are financialisation processes that enable Nature to be privatised, commodified and traded in financial market systems. Carbon market are false solutions that do not cut emissions at source.