Enough of the abuse and crimes: it’s time to green justice

The illegal dumping of waste in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, by oil company Trafigura in 2006 killed eight people, harmed the health of over 100,000, and degraded the environment. (Credit: Keystone/EPO/Legnan Koula)

Transitional justice mechanisms must incorporate concerns of abuse and crimes related to the environmental and natural resources in their practice and application, writes Munini Mutuku, a transitional justice practitioner and a speaker at Geneva’s Environmental Peacebuilding week. 

“Toxic waste dumping kills eight in Cote d’Ivoire”; “Wildlife in catastrophic decline due to human destruction”; “‘We’re losing children’: South Sudan ignores reports on oil pollution, birth defects.”

These headlines and the stories that accompany them are as numerous as they are devastating. The reality is plain to see in image and in print: it’s a call for help and for expeditious action.

But the message is falling on the deaf ears of a world unperturbed by the decay and degradation of an environment it doesn’t call its own. Wars and conflicts they seldom understand. An environment that is continuously subjected to abuse and crimes that have slowly become “okay”. And anyway, it’s Africa!

But the continued call is not a feeble voice; it’s a growing roar analogous to the yellow gold simba (lion in Swahili) of the African savanna lands. From the east to the west, south and north, it depicts the rising demands for environmental justice in all its forms. It’s a people disenchanted with the status quo of post-conflict degraded environments, biodiversity and habitat loss, over-exploitation of natural resources, unsustainable and abusive practices by diverse players leading to dysfunctional ecosystems that affect humans, plants and animals, and their surrounding environment.

More than a dozen sub-Saharan African countries are emerging from violent conflicts or authoritarian regimes plagued by human rights atrocities, exploitation and betrayals by external actors. Increasingly, they have turned to transitional justice mechanisms to help stabilize their societies and address the grievances of populations that aspire for better conditions and the right to live in a healthy environment.

These mechanisms are recognised as the truth, justice and reconciliation commissions, special courts, criminal tribunals, and local processes like the Gacaca Courts implemented after the Rwanda Genocide or the Fambul Toks created after the civil war in Sierra Leone.

Though, transitional justice as a field of practice has been criticised for carrying some biases. It has often failed in the past, for example, to take into account the diverse contexts within the continent and to respect the multiple factors at play in the situations concerned.

Firstly, they have promoted a hierarchy between human rights whereby civil and political rights receive more attention than economic, social and cultural rights. This is despite the fact that the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights has since its inception taken a different approach to other human rights instruments and recognised the collective rights of peoples,  containing provisions related to economic, social and cultural rights and more so natural resources and the environment.

Secondly, the impunity with which diverse players disregard the linkage between nature and people has okayed the immoral encroachment on the environment and natural resources, which in return has played a significant role in devastating livelihoods and populations.

The relationship between having substantial and minimal natural resources and the break out of conflicts in both scenarios of richness and scarcity that cause degraded and devastated environments is complex. It is further entangled with economic, social, cultural and political factors within the context where they manifest, making them one amongst many causes of the devastating images and the heart-wrenching stories.

In recognising these factors, transitional justice processes have to enhance their efforts at tackling the vulnerabilities of the societies in question, especially as they relate to economic, social and cultural rights.

They have to stand up and challenge diverse players who have a moral and legal obligation to respect, protect and sustainably access environments and natural resources.

They have to address the impacts of conflicts on the environment and natural resources and more so if they affect people’s right to food, water, shelter or nutrition.

They have to be alive to the fact that the majority of the affected communities often have economic, social and cultural practices that depend on the very environment and natural resources that have been destroyed.

They have to remodel the devastating images and reword the heart-wrenching headlines and stories that haunt our societies today.

Munini Mutuku is a transitional justice practitioner, a fellow of the Pan-African Reconciliation Network and Africa director of the Environmental Peacebuilding Association.