Should Crimes Against the Environment & Animals Deserve International Prosecution?

09/22/2015 11:42 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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When our global environment is harmed or animals are killed ruthlessly risking extinction and biodiversity, all of humanity is harmed and borders are exposed as irrelevant to global health. Consequently, should crimes against the environment and animals be addressed by an international criminal code and prosecuted by an international tribunal, particularly if national courts are unwilling, unable or deemed inadequate? The killing of "Cecil the Lion" by a US hunter was a singular event, perhaps inconsequential except for social media raising it to the level of a diplomatic incident. Nonetheless, the question remains how does the globe deter crimes as poaching, which frequently are not committed as isolated incidents by a rogue dentist from Minnesota but are part of a global criminal enterprise that funds everything from brutal war lords committing sexual violence and child exploitation to terrorism. Poaching and other crimes against our environment also incorporate a far-flung international network. Such crimes against environment and nature are frequently linked and part of the same criminal enterprise(s) that are already codified as "war crimes" or "crimes against humanity," as incorporated by the Rome Statute and the International Criminal Court, "ICC". Enforcement though may be most inadequate and selective while the impact upon global health and peace may be most profound.

Words but how About Deeds & Enforcement?

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This month the United Nations will host global leaders to seek a paradigm shift, once again, in our collective efforts to manage climate change and other environmental concerns. Even in words global leaders are a day late, or more. Nonetheless, beyond any agreement truly responsive to the problem among member states, what is the depth and breadth of enforcement for violation(s)? Whatever the measure and the rules, beyond the marginal cheating there is also the outright criminal enterprise. Such frequently involve dumping of toxic wastes in states unable, acquiescent and/or complicit due to failed political accountability and selective application of the rule of law. Further, whether toxins, pollutants and/or carbon fuel emissions, the violations even under current law involve multinational enterprises, a rising form of organized crime that undermines and corrupts the efforts agreed to and the institutions/states obliged to enforce. As much as the consequences of environmental crime go beyond borders, so do perpetrators seek to navigate individual states with a sense of impunity.

It remains to be seen whether the ICC may be part of the evolution of a solution. As a signatory to the Rome Statute in 1998 and negotiator to the comprehensive international agreement, certain "grave violations of international humanitarian law" were clearly within reach and others considered at the time still beyond. We managed to incorporate "gender based crimes" when previously sexual assault was seen by some as coincidental and raped women were defined as collateral damage of conflict. In fact, women and more broadly civilians more than not are targets. Genocide is an objective and sexual assault is a weapon. Other crimes as "aggression" have taken more time to resolve in extended debate. Terror as an international crime to be addressed by the ICC was in the 1990's a point of debate and remains in global efforts to better define and counter.

Global leaders need to envision the evolutionary path forward on catching up with defining the problem, the crimes but also enforcement. The ICC may not be the solution but it could be part of such, at least in terms of better defining standards and countering impunity. The ICC has complementary and not superseding jurisdiction. The ICC is called upon only when national courts are unwilling and/or unable to act. This may be particularly critical if the rule of law is fatally pierced by corruption or politics. Even more so than crimes against one's own citizens or "crimes against humanity," grave violations against our earth impact the whole globe, and humanity. The ICC, or similar institution, to address crimes against environment and animal may not be a clear or straight road forward but it gets us out of the current cul-de-sac.

From Jobs and Competitiveness to Nationalism and Tradition Employed as Rationale for Abusing Environment & Animals:

The ICC is currently still an institution seeking to gain both the resources and support of global powers in the execution of its mandate. While now around two thirds of the globe's states are members, from all continents, religions and legal cultures, a strange and some might say toxic brew of naysayers remains. This in effect alliance of naysayers includes Iran and Israel, India and Pakistan, the US, Russia and China. Many of the latter also contribute most to climate change and environmental degradation. Many of these states also are domain to the criminal enterprises that prosper from such violations spreading their reach beyond borders. It must though be pointed out that from within the ICC membership, there are also plenty of violators who find refuge. The most frequent argument employed for no enforcement or lax laws is that the other state does it, and if we don't then somehow a competitive advantage or jobs will be lost to the other. Nationalism is also a frequent rallying cry for abusing rather than defending a nation's as well as global natural resources. 

 
Protecting Animals, Biodiversity or as Global Citizens: 

Preserving our biodiversity already has convened global institutions, from NGO's as the World Wildlife Fund, "WWF," to the multilateral UNEP (UN's Environment Program agency based in Nairobi). Already established in 1973, CITES, (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in Wild Fauna & Flora), operates to establish standards based on both science and commerce. Such function frequently by consensus and in fact is largely dependent on voluntary application by states and enforcement via the courts and law enforcement of such. Animals, plants and other living subjects that may face endangerment are the subject of protection, or at least some form of oversight. It does not address animals as individuals that may suffer the consequences of exploitation or abuse, as such are not enshrined with any rights as individuals but viewed largely in context of survival of the species.
 

There is a growing number of persons who also perceive the animals killed and made to suffer as global citizens, or at least deserving not only our empathy but protection. (See: "Are Animals Global Citizens?") That last question though does not need an answer now, and we can simply start the discourse on the basis of the harm inflicted upon humanity and our shared earth, biodiversity or even notion of "animal welfare", (where animals deserve to be treated humanely and not by the higher standards of "animal rights"). The International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime, "ICCWC". brings together key organizations, including Interpol, World Bank, World Customs Organization, UN Office on Drugs and Crime as well as CITES but still largely depends on national efforts - in other words, there is no international tribunal with complementary/supplementary legal jurisdiction to ensure enforcement. (See: CITES)

Beyond enforcement, there is also the need to help shape consensus and global attitudes as shared values evolve. The adoption of legal standards by such bodies as the Assembly of State Parties to the ICC is becoming as valid as national or other multilateral institutions when addressing violations of human rights. A revitalized effort on crimes against the environment and animals, in order to be comprehensive and inclusive, may nudge multiple platforms and grassroots sources - is it possible that in a few years we will be speaking of a growing majority not so silent any longer who see animal rights as part of a shared global future? From today's passionate NGO's working on behalf of animals, will we evolve to come to the conclusion that we may need an Ambassador on behalf of Animals at the UN? (See: "Do Animals Need a UN Ambassador?")

Not About Punishment but Judgment and Projecting an Evolving Responsibility:

The killing of "Cecil the Lion" awoke the sense of empathy and perhaps responsibility among many by and large hereto silent. Does though the "poaching" of a lion rise to the level of crimes as mass-rape or genocide now addressed by the ICC? Is it a "grave violation of international humanitarian law"? Perhaps not, but here there is also the most significant gap to address, between growing human consciousness and reality of action. There are also other challenges that deserve consideration: Zimbabwe has requested the Minnesota dentist's extradition for violating poaching laws in killing "Cecil." Although the US State Department has a history of seeking absolute discretion in extradition cases, how comfortable can US Federal Courts be if sending a US citizen to Zimbabwe in view of that state's despotic head of state Robert Mugabe and the risk that an American may be deprived of fundamental legal rights as well as subject to political or other prejudice? 

The ICC, (or other similar court to be established potentially,) would help insure both proper treatment for the alleged crime as well as the purported perpetrator, (again only in the event national courts were unwilling, unable or otherwise disqualified, again emphasizing that the ICC only has complementary jurisdiction.) Further, the standards for prosecution and defense would reflect an evolving international consensus, perhaps best addressing a crime by a US citizen, committed in Zimbabwe, of the killing of an African lion who is perceived by many global citizens of deserving our empathy and protection.

Will We be the Survivors or the Fossils?

The crime of poaching a single lion may appear to be inconsequential compared to the suffering inflicted upon humans from Myanmar to Syria to the Horn of Africa. However, the idea is not punishment of perpetrators. For the crimes of genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda, the death penalty was neither the aim nor consequence. Rather judgment was needed to move forward with peace as much as to convict - just because impunity prevailed in the past, it should not shape the future. International tribunals help present diverse views not only into action/enforcement but also bring legal shape to changing attitudes. Punishment of poachers and others involved in the economic perpetration of such crimes may not result in harsh sentences but the more important consequence is deflating impunity and giving form to accountability. It may not only interdict crimes against nature but also confront those committing grave violations against fellow humans. I want to avoid being presumptuous by offering all the answers, but it is evident that many around the globe are increasingly asking the question and offering fresh perspectives reflecting evolving science, views of animals and our responsibility toward them. Animal rights are not human rights but our respect for one enhances the other. (See more on the efforts from writings of social media friend, Stevan Zivkov Andricin, an animal rights activist and his group, "Animals: A Parallel History Coalition.")

Whether the crime is inflicted upon our environment and/or animals, we begin to perceive in new perspectives. The impact is increasingly understood as global, as is the responsibility. Our survival is linked as the earth is waterhole for all, and borders between nations but also species become less of guarantee for prosperity or even survival. For those who cling to sovereignty, tradition or individual options as the only relevant consideration, like the dinosaurs, their dominion is already being overshadowed by a paradigm change in both necessity and attitudes. That does not mean that they should be ignored in the discussion, but the choice is to voice today's challenges or have our fossils tell of our ignorance of the pending risks. In combating terror, the threat is perceived to warrant a change. Calls for a more coordinated international response and where borders are increasingly defined by the nature of the crime as well as response. Similarly, when addressing an existential threat to earth and life, change is upon us, and we can guide it or all be swept away by something that strikes with the power of a cosmic event.

By:
Ambassador Muhamed Sacirbey, @MuhamedSacirbey

With Contribution from Stevan Zivkov & Susan Sacirbey  

UN Photo One/E Darroch: Drought in Africa, Jan. 1984, Botswana, "Drought is ravaging the continent of Africa. Famine is a harsh reality for millions of people living there & animals are also suffering greatly - dry lands are abandoned as man and wildlife seek refuge elsewhere."

If animals can come together to face an existential threat, can we learn the same lesson? 

UN Photo Two/Philip Teuscher: Only One Earth, the Environment - "Pollution of the environment has become so widespread that all forms of life are threatened. In June 1972 representatives of some 130 nations met in Stockholm for an unprecedented meeting under the auspices of the United Nations to seek ways of translating their concern about the deterioration of conditions on our planet into a global attack on the problem."

As early as 1970, under the banner of "One Earth," the UN took up the cause of an environment that knows no borders & affects all on this globe.