Is the planet our neighbour, in law?
7 January 2011
It must be something in the air. On the day the “Ratcliffe 20” were spared imprisonment for their planned attack on a power station, the Guardian published environmental lawyer Polly Higgins’ call for a new crime of ecocide and the fringe movement Campaign for Real Farming – rival to the mainstream Oxford Farming Conference – were sewing the seeds for resistance to ecologically damaging agricultural laws and practices.
The widespread perception is that the law and its custodians can no longer be trusted to safeguard the environment, or, to put it in the language of rights, that the protection that flows from current forms of rights entitlement is not only insufficient for, but positively damaging to the interests of the natural world.
Polly Higgins argues that government-led mass destruction of ecosystems should be declared an international crime against peace, alongside genocide and crimes against humanity, which could be tried at the International Criminal Court. It is necessary, in her view, to create a duty of care to the planet, “a pre-emptive obligation” to not harm the world about us, in order to prevent the resource wars which are arguably a more certain threat to human security than the genocides of the past. Referring in her article to the Ratcliffe 20 campaign, Higgins makes the case for this kind of direct action since
climate campaigners do not have the support of the judiciary in preventing the corporate ecocide that is daily occurring under our very noses….our justice system is unable to protect our greater interests when faced with the superior silent right of corporations to cause injury to persons and planet. Those who stand up and speak out are thereby treated as criminals.
Laudable though these objectives are, not everybody is comfortable with the idea of a judiciary stealthily endorsing its own prejudices, on the environment as much as any other politically sensitive issue . The Ratcliffe case is a good example. A somewhat aerated report in the local press complains that
A GROUP of environmental activists, who were convicted of conspiracy to commit aggravated trespass after they planned to shut down Ratcliffe on Soar power station, have walked free from court.
The combined police and court bill is expected to have costs the taxpayer £700,000.
– a reflection of local indignation that may not have been helped by Teare J’s comment to the defendants that he had “no doubt” that each of them had
acted with the highest possible motives. And that is an extremely important consideration.
Whilst Eleanor Coombs argues in her guest post that the consistent failure of climate activists’ defences of necessity and lawful excuse reflect shortcomings in our legal system, it is ultimately for the electorate, not for sympathetic judges and juries, to change the law in order to address this injustice. To take another example – discussed by Adam Wagner in an earlier post -whatever view one takes of the Gaza war, it is questionable whether the activists who caused £180,000 damage to an arms factory should have successfully deployed the defence of lawful excuse, or indeed whether the judge should have made the observations that he did when acquitting them.
All forms of direct action, civil disobedience, non-violent protest will kindle this debate and it is in the embers of such controversy that new laws are forged. This does not mean that defiance of the law is morally neutral. Damaging a taxpayer-funded power station is one thing; feeding kitchen scraps to pigs is another. But that is a matter for a different post.
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