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Holding the Global North Responsible for Climate Change: What Would Lord Russell Do?

Would a climate change tribunal offer justice to those affected by global warming?

If Lord Bertrand Russell were still alive today, he would most likely be appalled by the Global North’s glaring inaction on climate change. One of the twentieth century’s most eminent philosophers, Russell was also an outspoken critic of war and irrationality. In 1966, just as the United States was ramping up the war in Vietnam, Russell helped to establish a novel legal tribunal which condemned war crimes committed in South East Asia.

What is intriguing about the Russell tribunal held in Sweden is that, from a legal standpoint it lacked any institutional or political authority. No matter, declared the legendary English philosopher: in the absence of meaningful moral standards in the law, the tribunal would help to foster a new sense of ethics in the international arena. Fundamentally, he hoped to form “a highly representative, independent, and respected” international body.

The Englishman financed the tribunal through loans and proceeds from his autobiography and managed to attract a number of political and intellectual heavyweights as a result of his star power. Luminaries who eventually participated in the Russell tribunals included the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, social critic Simone de Beauvoir and writer Julio Cortázar.

CO2 emissions from fossil fuels in China and the United States, 1900-2007.

Publicly, Russell hoped that the tribunal might “try” high up U.S. politicians such as Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara before a court of world opinion. Privately however the philosopher recognized that the tribunal would more likely take the form of “an international investigation commission.” In assembling his tribunal Russell sought to avoid the appearance of a mere show trial, recommending instead that the body’s members act as symbolic judges who would formulate conclusions based on their own inquiries.

Needless to say, Johnson refused to appear before the Russell tribunal and the Englishman’s letters to high up U.S. officials went unanswered. As a result of the no-shows, the tribunal could never act as an official court or conduct a trial. Moreover, the new body could not formally sentence defendants. Despite such shortcomings Russell argued that the tribunal’s lack of legal standing was an advantage since the body could not be swayed by any country or state’s political agenda.

Sartre presided as the body’s executive president and during Stockholm proceedings in 1967 the body heard testimony from eyewitnesses. One U.S. soldier declared that he had observed an American officer beheading a prisoner of war with a machete. The officer then threw the prisoner’s head down the hill as a warning to others that the Americans meant business. Having concluded the hearings, the tribunal ruled that the U.S. had committed war crimes based on “intensive and systematic bombardment” of hospitals and schools.

Unfortunately, while the tribunal made an international splash most Americans ignored the graphic testimony. Meanwhile, some criticized Russell for being feeble-minded and excessively compliant when it came to dealing with ideologues seeking to control the tribunal for their own political agendas. Others said the tribunal was a judicial farce and a mere anti-American public relations stunt.

The political radical David Horowitz declared that the tribunal had succeeded in humiliating Russell and “deprived him of being regarded affectionately as a remarkable antique from the Victorian era, to be trotted out at annual celebrations.” Critics charged that the tribunal lacked objectivity since it essentially predetermined the verdict before evidence was even presented. Despite criticism, Russell’s push for ethical tribunals resonated amongst many around the world and his idea of holding nations to account for their crimes later gained traction. Eight years after the Vietnam tribunal, a second Russell tribunal passed judgment on crimes and human rights violations committed by Latin American military dictatorships.

World Consumption of Hydroelectricity and Other Renewable Energy by Region, Reference Case, 1990-2030. Data from EIA

Today, the Latin American people want to push things even further by taking up the issue of climate change. In Latin America, many wonder why they should pay the price for affluent nations’ environmental pollution. But who should determine climate culpability, civil society or political leaders? In September, Bolivian president Evo Morales called for the creation of a climate tribunal while attending the United Nations in New York. Climate change, Morales remarked, was “a product of the capitalist system which merely pursues the highest possible profit without taking into account the lives of others.” The Global North, Morales concluded, should indemnify poor nations for the ravages of climate change.

Though Morales has played an important role in floating the idea of a climate tribunal, it has been civil society which has been the driving engine. Indeed, if it were not for environmentalists and activists the first international tribunal on climate justice would not have gotten off the ground. Meeting recently in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba, civil society groups brought environmental cases against a diverse group of targets ranging from corporations to actual governments. In this sense, the Cochabamba summit had more grass roots support than Bertrand Russell’s tribunal which courted the 1960s political intelligentsia.

To be sure, there was a bit of Russell’s show trial ethos at work in the Cochabamba tribunal. Aymara Indians from the Bolivian Andes submitted one case relating to a melting glacier called Illimani to a symbolic jury comprised of European and Latin American environmentalists, lawyers, and human rights activists. During the proceedings, the Indians charged that nations of the Global North were responsible for the melting of their glacier. After reviewing the Indians’ case, the jurists concluded that indeed climate was endangering the Aymaras’ right to cultural self determination and physical health. Even worse, global warming threatened to displace indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands.

Carrying on in the tradition of Jean Paul Sartre, participants secured the support of eight jurors who were partial to their point of view. Specifically, the jury included Ricardo Navarro, a Salvadoran who promoted environmentally-friendly technologies and environmental rights; Alicia Muñoz, a Chilean and president of a rural indigenous women’s association; Beverly Keene, an American born Argentine economist who campaigned for the cancellation of Third World debt; Nora Morales, another Argentine who helped to found the Association of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, an organization which has sought justice against those responsible for the kidnapping, torture and disappearances of tens of thousands during the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983, as well as others.

Peruvian glaciers near the Urubamba valley.

Tom Kucharz, a German journalist who served as a juror is hardly a foe of environmentalists. An anti-globalization activist, he is skeptical that upcoming climate talks held in Copenhagen, Denmark may result in a fair ecological shake for poor nations. Rich countries, he said, should recognize their “climate debt” to impoverished nations and promote an economic bailout for the Global South.

Like the Russell tribunal, the Cochabamba summit managed to score some polemical points following the proceedings. Kucharz and the other jurists had harsh remarks for the Global North which in their words shared “historic responsibility” for emitting most of the word’s greenhouse gases over the past 250 years. The capitalist system, the group continued, contributed to climate change while impeding a rapid and effective environmental response. The jurists noted that Illimani and other cases brought before the tribunal demonstrated how governments, international financial institutions, banks and transnational corporations worked in tandem to worsen our climate change dilemma.

As in the case of the Russell tribunal, the Cochabamba summit had no legal standing and its decisions were purely non-binding. Jurists and organizers however are hopeful that the tribunal may help to promote meaningful political action in the future. Specifically, they want international entities such as the Organization of American States and International Court of Human Rights to take up and investigate the issue of climate change and ecological crimes. In the long term, the Indians expect that governments, lawyers, judges, the Inter-American system and the United Nations will identify human rights violations resulting from climate change as true crimes against humanity.

If they want international organizations to pick up the issue of climate change, however, activists will have to contend with thorny political questions just like the Russell tribunal. Consider this vexing issue: who, precisely, should act as the mouthpiece for climate change justice? From a moral point of view, one of the strengths of the Cochabamba summit was its link to the grassroots. But, in order for their movement to advance, organizers will have to secure the support of political leaders.

Up to now, that support has come from the usual suspects in Latin America. Following deliberations at Cochabamba the jurists handed over their findings to Bolivian President Evo Morales who in turn spoke with fellow left leaning leaders within a trading bloc known as the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (or ALBA in Spanish). Taking up Morales’ call, ALBA leaders said they would support the creation of an international tribunal on climate justice which would presumably seek to oblige affluent nations to pay “damages” for their high consumption of fossil fuels. Moreover, dignitaries have urged the upcoming U.N. climate change conference in Copenhagen to “approve mechanisms to compensate countries that preserve, protect and conserve their forests.”

For organizers, getting support from the likes of Morales represents a positive step forward. However, many in the Global North will scoff at the new tribunal if it is too closely identified with the likes of Fidel Castro or Hugo Chávez. To truly be effective, climate change activists will have to gain support from more important geopolitical players in the region such as Brazil. If they fail to do so, critics may dismiss the tribunal as a partisan hatchet job on the United States, just like in Russell’s day.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of the forthcoming No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2010).

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