Humanity vs The Australian Government. Or how to save the Great Barrier Reef.

The move of the Australian government to allow coal mining giant Adani dumping of dredge at the Great Barrier Reef and thus further weaken an already fragile ecosystem calls for action. While national procedures repeatedly seem to fail, it’s time to call for environmental justice on international level.   

Since being in charge, the new Australian government has been very efficient in challenging the environment by removing already weak environmental legislation. Yet, it should be considered that ever since white settlement began in late 18th century, the environment has had a difficult position in Australia. The environment has mainly been appreciated for the possibility to exploit its natural resources that can be sold against cash. Mining has a long tradition in Australia and despite all negative impacts, many see benefits rather than costs in this rather dull habit.

From many perspectives, Australia seems far away from the rest of the world; geo- graphically and in values. In terms of environmental protection this could for example be illustrated in Australia having taken a very selfish path in the UNFCCC (Kyoto Protocol), not being signatory to treaties such as the Espoo (EIA) Convention, flawed domestic impact assessment procedures or the fact that public participation is something that down-under simply doesn’t exist. Australia is not only isolated on the world map, but more so in terms of what can now be considered international environmental law and best practice. Nevertheless, exactly those later points make a good case to protect the Great Barrier Reef once and for all.

The WHC (UNESCO): As I have suggested in another post it could also be expected that the international community, in particular the WHC would remind the Australian government of its duty to protect the Great Barrier Reef rather than threatening to move the site from the World Heritage List to the list of World Heritage in Danger. Those who – like me – wonder if a body such as the WHC can execute any power at all, might not be surprised to read that whereas it “will challenge a country if an EIA is slow in coming forward….it does not challenge the results of the EIA unless it was flawed in its process or limited in its scope.”
A pity. Yet, the WHC is not the only body that has influence over the Great Barrier Reef.

Ramsar, CBD, CMS and other treaties: Australia is member of many regional and international environmental treaties, such as the Ramsar Convention, the Convention on Biological Diversity or the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals. Some of them have very strong environmental elements and theoretically Australia has the duty to abide by those. Worth mentioning in terms of the planned project and expected negative impacts on the Great Barrier Reef as an ecosystem and World Heritage, on climate change and on the health of thousands of citizens are two of the major environmental principles which can be found in several of those treaties, namely the precautionary principle and the principle of prevention. Although disputed and not applied equally among nations, they can now be considered part of the international environmental law regime. Consequently, international courts have repeatedly made use of them[1]. This could definitely also be the case here, were someone to initiate the process[2].

An intact environmental as part of the Human Rights Convention: As Birnie et al[3] have shown “environmental quality has become a human-rights issue”. Even if the right to a decent environment has not yet become part of international law and given that in many countries, national policies and law are far from providing such, “there remains the alternative possibility that environmental right can be derived from other existing treaty rights, in particular the rights to life, private life, property, and access to justice under the 1966 UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The Indian government and its power to stop Adani: India is a model for a country that has made use of the human rights principles in order to protect the environment and citizens form harm due to irresponsible developments. Indian courts have used the right to life as a basis for opposing state inaction in several cases. Further, the Indian Constitution dictates that “The State shall endeavour to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wild life of the country.” Not only does this mean that the Indian government must stop the firing of coal in order to produce electricity, but that being an Indian company, Adani can be stopped by the Indian government from doing what they wouldn’t be allowed to do in India[4]. As Birnie et al claim “it seems entirely consistent with the case law and the “living instrument” conception of human rights treaties to conclude that a state party must balance the rights of persons in other states against its own economic benefits, and must adopt and enforce environmental protection laws for their benefit, as well as for the protection of its own population.

As all these facts show, there are actually enough mechanism to stop such irresponsible developments as the Adani coal mine and dumping of dredge at or near a World Heritage Site which has already heavily suffered from environmental damage over the past decade(s). Even if Australian environmental law is far from being applied properly, there are other measures to protect the Great Barrier Reef. The question is who is going to do the first move and tell the Australian Government that enough is enough.

Maybe you? Why not send an email to one of the persons in charge and gently reminding them of the above facts and their duties to comply with the treaties to which Australia is a member?

Here you find the contacts of people you might want to contact: Australian Prime Minister, Environmental Minister, Premier of QLD, President of India (Secretariat).


[1] See for example European Court of Justice in “use of four antibiotics as animal feed additives” or ITLOS in “the Southern Blue Fin Tuna case against Japan

[2] Some NGOs have been active. See for example here.

[3] See Birnie et al (2009): „International Law & the Environment

[4] On the basis of non-discriminatory treatment and access to justice as stipulated in human-rights treaties and the duty for states to secure civil and political rights and freedoms for everyone within its own territory or subject to jusristication.

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About blaubear

Born in 1973 in a small village in rural Switzerland and into a society largely dominated by cows (not only was the human population of one-hundred-and-forty outnumbered by them, but politics driven by unreasonable subsidies for diary products) I was connected with nature from early age on. Observing nature on one hand and the deficiencies of a dysfunctional Swiss agricultural policy with farmers that had lost connection to the land that provided their income on the other, I soon started to question society and the meaning of life. Suffering also under a farcical public education I developed curiosity to discover on my own. That was how I soon learned that little of what I had been taught was true. Skepticism and interaction with people from for me new cultures fostered my interest for the world and eagerness to leave a life shaped by federalistic layman-ship. At the age of twenty-three I hit the road for the first time, an event that later translated into passion. Traveling between cultures has since become part of my life. At the age of thirty-three I finally realized my dream and did a degree in Environmental Engineering from which I graduated in 2009, only to leave Switzerland once more for my "real home" Spain. Unfortunately, the stay was a short one: a couple of months later I was offered a job in Southeast Asia, where I worked and also lived (with some interruptions, e.g. I live in Melbourne since late 2012) ever since. Having worked for a Japanese company earlier in my life, I soon felt captured again by Asian culture and thinking which makes a lovely contrast to my European heritage. My journey through different countries and cultures has taught me that regardless of how different our thinking and values are, no matter what approaches we take, we all can learn from each other. And if we are open enough to see the common instead of pointing out the differences, then we have a chance to live in harmony and peace: Life is all about integration, not exclusion! It's an old wisdom that "knowledge is power", as such I never get tired of being around new people, having interesting talks, and reading lots of good books. I hope that my blog can contribute to the conversation.
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