Sunday, May 13, 2018

From Australia to El Salvador to Vietnam, the Environment Is Finally Getting Its Day in Court

Specialized environmental courts are now operating on every continent except Antarctica.  What's behind the boom?

Gavel (Credit: yaleclimateconnections.org0) Click to Enlarge.
When the improper disposal of wastewater from the construction site of a joint shopping center and apartment complex threatened to contaminate hundreds of residents’ water in Sonsonate, El Salvador, activists and community leaders filed a lawsuit through the country’s specialized environmental justice system.  In response, Lina Pohl, El Salvador’s minister of environment and natural resources, went to inspect the water.  When she found signs of contamination, she ordered the suspension of construction.

Using legal tools to report an alleged violation of the law might not seem groundbreaking.  But in El Salvador, justice in environmental disputes has long swung in favor of rich developers with political connections rather than activists and citizens.  So, in 2014 the Central American nation established three regional environmental tribunals to even the playing field in environmental disputes.

“Historically, institutions in El Salvador have operated with lots of corruption.  This is a system that breaks with that tradition of corruption,” says Salvador Recinos, specialist in ecological policy for the Salvadoran Ecological Unit (UNES), a nongovernmental organization based in San Salvador.  “With this court system, there is clearly a better chance of people in El Salvador having access to justice in these types of environmental cases.”

Justice systems around the world face obstacles to settling environmental cases quickly and fairly, whether from corruption, drawn-out trials or judges who lack understanding of environmental issues.  Specialized environmental courts have emerged as an important defense against human-caused destruction of the environment.  In 2009 there were only 350 of these specialized court systems in the world.  Today there are at least 1,200 in 44 countries.

Evolving understanding
The boom in environmental courts is driven by an evolving understanding of human rights and environmental law, increased awareness of the threats of climate change, and dissatisfaction with general court systems, according to George (Rock) Pring, co-author of Environmental Courts & Tribunals, a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) guide for policy-makers.

“Human rights and environmental rights are now seen as overlapping and complementing each other, not surprisingly,” he says.  “Climate change has also been a big pressure on creating environmental courts, as have concepts such as sustainable development.”

International agreements like the Paris Climate Change Accords have made important strides in recognizing the severity of the problems posed by climate change, but their non-binding nature means that it is up to national court systems to ensure these promises are carried out.

Read more at The Environment Is Finally Getting Its Day in Court

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