This week, more than 25,000 people gather at the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow to address what is not only a global environmental catastrophe, but a global crisis of justice. In a series of four articles, Orion contributor and former board member Kathleen Dean Moore reports on an international human rights court ruling that transnational fossil fuel corporations and governments, in collusion, are directly violating rights guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
THE CALLS of red-winged blackbirds and meadowlarks usually fill the air above Highway 71 in northern Minnesota, the road leading to a construction site for Enbridge’s Line 3 oil pipeline. But for the past few months, pipeline protesters have heard instead the smack of rubber bullets hitting human flesh, the explosion of tear gas canisters, the deafening, nauseating sound assault of the county police’s new weapon, LRAD—the Long-Range Acoustic Device developed by the Navy to shoot a laser-like beam of 150 decibels into unprotected ears.
The protesters, according to Simone Senogles of the Indigenous Environmental Network, had gathered to “protect the water, the wild rice, and the next seven generations of life” from a pipeline designed to carry 760,000 barrels of Canadian tar sands oil each day. The pipeline crosses treaty-protected land, traditional wild rice–producing lakes, twenty-two streams, and 800 wetlands. The climate impact of the oil it carries each year is equivalent to the annual emissions of forty-five coal-fired plants.
The stories of Line 3 are familiar stories, as pipelines, chain saws, and riot police are deployed in a broad front advancing against the generally poor and Indigenous defenders of their homes. As oil infrastructure advances, so also do the effects of the global warming that it fuels—sea level rise, lethal heat waves, flood, drought, and dislocation. Given the power and wealth of the transnational gas and oil corporations, the battle is uneven; to date, Big Oil has advanced with only sporadic moral or legal restraint.
But how might the story change if the world understood the actions of transnational oil and gas corporations and their government allies as not only environmental threats, but also as violations of human rights—starting with social rights to health, clean water, and Indigenous sovereignty, and leading almost inexorably to violations of the political rights to freedom of expression and assembly? When scientific studies and political horse trading fail to stall global warming, moral outrage at climate injustice can inspire important and effective action against the forces that fuel climate change.
How might the story change if the world understood the actions of transnational oil and gas corporations and their government allies as not only environmental threats, but also as violations of human rights?
Climate change links environmental degradation and social injustice.
There was a time when people understood global warming to be an environmental disaster, posing existential danger to polar bears, jungles, and boreal forests. But global warming is now revealed as also a global crisis of social and racial injustice, shimmering with human suffering that falls first and most severely on the poor, especially women and children, on people of color, and on Indigenous people, north and south. “It is evident that the geographies of climate injustice and vulnerability remain closely correlated with historical patterns of socio-economic, racial and gender injustice,” writes Kirsten Davies, a member of the Global Network for the Study of Human Rights.
The Line 3 protesters along Highway 71, struggling to keep their water and traditional foods safe from oil contamination, know that environmental degradation drives human suffering. It is also true that human suffering drives environmental degradation; they are two faces of the same coin. The two-sided coin now has a name—climate injustice. And it now has many faces—the weary faces of people sorting debris left by hurricanes and wildfires, or hoeing barren fields, or holding asthmatic children, or wading through polluted floodwaters, bearing all that remains to them on their shoulders—all desperate, with nowhere to go.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls corporations and governments to account.
Global warming and the resulting climate injustice are not inevitable, accidental, or random. They are the result of knowing and intentional decisions by leaders of transnational oil and gas companies, people like ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods, who will earn $23.5 million this year by directing the drilling, pumping, and selling of fossil fuels. Even though they urge consumers to blame themselves for climate change, fossil fuel companies have skillfully and relentlessly created a world economy in which consumers have few other options for heat, transportation, and power.
Governments have failed and are failing spectacularly to restrain oil and gas industries. The corporations have manipulated states so they can operate with the cooperation of lawmakers, who relax environmental regulations, provide subsidies, and arm police against protesters. Through massive flows of cash and promises of “development,” industry has captured and corrupted many of the very governments and agencies designed to restrain them. In some cases, the industries write the laws that regulate them and hire police to protect them against any pushback. As a result, the corporate actions that threaten to dismember the global systems that sustain all life on Earth—even as they sicken children, drive people to desperate flight from heat and hunger, and cause 5 million deaths each year—are generally legal by the laws of states.
The world has encountered this situation before, when morally unspeakable acts were perfectly legal. In Nazi Germany, acts of butchery and inhumanity were committed in full compliance with that country’s legally enacted statutes. In response, representatives of virtually every nation on Earth gathered in the United Nations General Assembly to give powerful voice to their global moral outrage. For the first time in human history, the world’s nations agreed on and formally adopted a statement of moral values—the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is a remarkable global consensus about hard ethical boundaries outside of which certain government, corporate, and individual behaviors are not morally permissible.
“Disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of humankind,” the preamble states. All human beings, as human beings, possess certain rights without discrimination, according to Article 3: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.”
“Disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of humankind.” — The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
This agreement marked a leap forward in moral progress. Human rights standards are a trump card, because honoring rights is a primary obligation that supersedes other, potentially conflicting, values—including economic growth and corporate profit. Every schoolchild knows or should know that “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.” But governments often fail to do so, and when they fail, international human rights courts can call them to account for behaviors that offend the conscience of the world.
As activists struggle to slow corporate practices that endanger the planetary future, international human rights courts are potentially powerful tools. They can globally affirm that when climate change, and the extraction techniques that fuel it, directly threaten the rights of human beings to life, liberty, or security of person, then deeply and broadly accepted moral norms have been violated, including those encoded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The effect of their judgment can revoke the social license of the extreme extraction industries that threaten to bring civilization to the brink of collapse.
An international human rights court finds that Big Oil and governments are responsible for massive rights violations.
In 2018, a highly respected international human rights court, the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal, convened the world’s first Special Session on Human Rights, Fracking, and Climate Change, to determine “under what circumstances [oil and gas extraction], along with their impacts on the climate system, breach substantive and procedural human rights protected by international law.”
Based in Rome, the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal grew out of the Vietnam War crimes tribunals organized by philosophers Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre in the 1960s. Since then, the tribunal has convened more than forty sessions investigating state and nonstate human rights violations in Latin America, Afghanistan, Bhopal, India, Chernobyl, and Myanmar.
After hearing expert and eyewitness testimony and legal arguments, the ten judges of the tribunal issued an advisory opinion: there exists an axis of betrayal between transnational oil and gas corporations and governments that allows the violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
There exists an axis of betrayal between transnational oil and gas corporations and governments that allows the violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In a 101-page opinion, the judges went on to detail the rights violations. The document constitutes a detailed and evidence-based denunciation of the transnational oil and gas industry and government treachery: fossil fuel mining and its global consequences are unjust, a massive violation of human rights norms embedded in international agreements that are as close to a global moral consensus as this world is likely ever to see.
The opinion also constitutes a full-throated affirmation of the obligation to respect and protect human worth and dignity. It offers a transformative model for how the world might make different judgments about climate change, when human rights standards are foregrounded and taken seriously, and when those who violate human rights are held to account for the harm and injustice they create.
The time for talking in order not to do anything, or as little as possible, has long since passed.
With police in riot gear bracing in front of armored cars and demonstrators massing behind a barricade made from steel cable and an old fishing boat, the conflict on Highway 71 represents a choice of directions—aiming civilization toward the aspirational goals in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or toward the perceived inevitability of the fossil fuel–powered life, the dangerous life, the end game.
In its final recommendations, the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal made clear their choice:
The time for talking in order not to do anything, or as little as possible, has long since passed. . . The Tribunal recognizes its own moral responsibility to take a position beyond the legalism that is bound to favor powerful corporate violators and their complicit partners in crime, the government authorities at all levels. . . . The [Tribunal] believes that the direct, active resistance of the people in countries around the globe must be recognized as justifiable resistance to the unjust, even murderous, destruction of communities and plundering of nature’s resources, aided and abetted by governments.
Bearing Witness: The Human Rights Case Against Fracking and Climate Change, published by Oregon State University Press and edited by Thomas A. Kerns and Kathleen Dean Moore, tells the story of the landmark case through carefully curated court materials, including eyewitness testimony, legal and moral testimony, and the Tribunal’s Advisory Opinion. Essays by leading climate writers such as Winona LaDuke, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and Sandra Steingraber and legal experts such as John Knox, Mary Wood, and Anna Grear give context to the controversy.
A forty-minute film about the Tribunal, Bedrock Rights: A New Foundation for Global Action Against Fracking and Climate Change, is available free online. The film, created by the Spring Creek Project, features appearances by Jacqueline Patterson, of the NAACP; Winona LaDuke, of Honor the Earth; Sandra Steingraber, author of Living Downstream; and many others. It powerfully showcases the Tribunal’s findings that the oil and gas industry and their government allies routinely violate the right to clean water, Indigenous rights to the land, the right to life and health, and the right to information and participation. Spring Creek offers assistance to any groups that would like to hold a community screening of the film. Contact them here.
Documentary production and videography was provided by Fire+Bird Films.