Cancún Eyewitness #4: Making ecocide a crime; Via Campesina arrives

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Little progress is evident in the official climate negotiations, but activity is growing outside the meeting halls

by Javier Sethness

Recent days of the COP-16 negotiations currently being held in Cancún have been little different than the initial days of the summit, for little has been agreed on or achieved. Christiana Figueres, Yvo de Boer’s successor as chair of the UNFCCC, publicly recognized as such on Thursday when she nearly broke into tears while lamenting the lack of progress thus far seen at COP-16.

Japan has announced that it does not support an extension of the Kyoto Protocol, while the Bolivian delegation has repeatedly argued for the creation of a climate tribunal to punish actors that do not work toward the reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions, in accordance with recommendations made by President Evo Morales last year in Copenhagen and the conclusions of the April 2010 Cochabamba Accord.

At Klimaforum10 on Friday morning there was had a presentation by British lawyer Polly Higgins regarding her proposal to codify the crime of ecocide into international law. Higgins, a former corporate lawyer who collaborated with the Bolivian government in drawing up the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, stipulates that ecocide—the “extensive destruction, damage to or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory […] to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been severely diminished”—become a fifth “crime against peace,” alongside genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and the crime of aggression.

Drawing parallels between the barbarism of slavery and the present world-historical environmental crisis, Higgins claimed the Earth to have “enslaved” by industrialization; she went on to postulate the existence of a link between ecocide and war, claiming the former to contribute to the latter and the latter in turn to the former. This vicious cycle, she said, cannot be merely regulated: it must definitively be broken. Codification into international law of the crime of ecocide could contribute to this end, as the threat of imprisonment can in her view reasonably be expected to drive bankers, business executives, and other capitalists overseeing ecocidal practices to promote and advance alternative actions.

It is in this sense that the principal drivers of anthropogenic climate change and environmental destruction generally conceived can pass from being perpetuators of such negations to being agents who will resolve the crisis, argues Higgins: she envisions energy companies that face sanction for their contributions to ecocide becoming “clean-energy companies.”

Underlying Higgins’ perspectives, as summarized in her recently-published book Eradicating Ecocide, is concern for the sacredness of life, and not just human life. She argues for a shift from a property-law regime—the basis, in her view, of the present COP negotiations—to one steeped in trusteeship law. Concurring with established precedents regarding the legal concept of superior responsibility, she finds those afforded greater power within given hierarchical arrangements to bear greater responsibility for the actions perpetuated by such institutions. In concrete terms, she argues that spaces which have been subjected to ecocide should be administered as trust territories by the United Nations—much like those territories historically deemed by the Western ruling classes as being unfit for self-governance.

Higgins may have excessive faith in the U.N. process, for this process has been entirely complicit with the stunningly underwhelming response afforded the specter of climate change to date. That George W. Bush and Tony Blair continue to enjoy liberty in light of their myriad crimes against humanity and the Earth should be sufficient to demonstrate the inadequacy of international law under prevailing conditions.

Friday evening saw the arrival to the Global Forum for Life and Environmental and Social Justice of the six Via Campesina caravans that had for several days been touring various parts of southern Mexico to studye the effects of climate change and environmental devastation in the region.

The Forum, which is being held in a public park in downtown Cancún, began the next morning with an indigenous Mexican ceremony. followed by speeches denouncing the numerous false solutions being advanced by hegemonic power-groups in light of the climate crisis: agrofuels, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), carbon-trading, and so on.

These talks were interrupted at several points with cries from the crowd of “¡Globalicemos la lucha! ¡Globalicemos la esperanza!” (‘Globalize struggle! Globalize hope!’) as well as others commemorating the memory of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.

Subsequently were presented summary-reports of the activities and findings of the six caravans, which generally denounced the environmental destruction visited on an alarming number of Mexican communities and ecosystems by capitalist firms, both national and transnational, together with a marked lack of interest on the part of the Mexican State in regulating or redressing such abuses.

This morning there was a march—“for Life and Climate Justice”—in downtown Cancún. The demonstration of about 1500 people included anarchist, Stalinist, and eco-socialist groups, in addition to the Via Campesina contingent and other agrarian organizations. The march stopped at the site at which Lee Hyung-Kae, a South Korean small farmer, took his life in protest against neo-liberal economic policies during the World Trade Organization meeting in Cancún in 2003, and at Cancún city hall, where Mexican and Haitian speakers denounced the effects of climate change on their societies. Police were conspicuously absent from the route taken by the march in general.

The march was in a sense a dress-rehearsal for the mass-march planned in Cancún for Tuesday morning. Commissions have been organized to visit various neighborhoods in the city over the next two days to invite locals to participate in the mobilization.

Javier Sethness is a libertarian socialist and rights-advocate. He maintains the blog Notes toward an International Libertarian Eco-Socialism.