Over a thousand legal experts, politicians and economists gathered in Dhaka this week to explore routes to justice for the victims of climate criminals – and found that precedents exist
Oxfam's alliance on Economic Justice called climate criminals to account in a prototype climate court at a Dhaka conference this week. Photograph: CSRL
Imagine an international court where the poorest people in the world could sue countries such as the US or Britain for failing to keep to agreements to reduce climate emissions or for knowingly causing devastating climate change.
It's some way off, but this week has seen an extraordinary tribunal being held in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, with more than 1,200 people including British lawyers, politicians and economists, listening to the testimonies of villagers living at the frontline of climate change.
It was only a mock tribunal, organised by Oxfam, but it explored the growing idea that the largest carbon emitters should be bound by international law to protect the lives and livelihoods of those most at risk from the impacts of climate change.
Rushanara Ali, the newly-elected MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, who is already shadow minister for international development, was there along with Richard Lord QC, who will be looking at the legislation that is available for affected countries to pursue.
The stories the tribunal heard were heartbreaking. Mamtaz, one of four plaintiffs, wanted to know who was legally responsible for her fisherman husband's death. She and others testified that the seas off Bangladesh are now rougher more often and that boats were capsized more frequently in the increasingly stormy weather. Barek Majhi, a fisherman, told the tribunal how his three trawlers had sunk and ruined his means of making a living.
The cries for climate justice are growing stronger by the day. In Latin America, President Evo Morales has formally proposed to the UN that an International Court of Climate Justice is established. It would have the capacity to restrain, prosecute and punish states, companies and people who, by act or omission, make major contributions to climate change.
Support at the World People's Conference on Climate Change in April has come from tens of thousands of people, including Miguel D'Escoto, a former president of the United Nations, and Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, who won a 1980 Nobel peace prize.
Of interest to Oxfam and even the UN could be a new paper from Field, the London-based Foundation for International Environmental Law & Development. This shows how there are many existing laws and principles available for states to sue one another for damage caused by climate change, and how this could pressure nations into stronger international action.
Top of the list was the "no-harm rule", a widely recognised principle of customary international law, which Field's lawyers say is directly applicable to climate change.
Under the principle, nations are bound to prevent, reduce and control the risk of environmental harm to other nations. The classic example of this was litigation over trans-national air pollution between Canada and the United States, where Canada was forced to compensate the US for damage caused by sulphur dioxide emissions.
Meanwhile, senior academics, judges and lawmakers from around the world are backing the International Court for the Environment. It would be an over-arching global institution that would provide improved access to justice following incidents of environmental damage and breaches of international treaties, and would, exclusively, sit above – and adjudicate on – disputes arising out of UN environmental treaties, such as 1992's Convention on Biological Diversity and its Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto protocol.
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