In the past many visionaries and leaders have been lawyers – think of Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. So when I arrived at the World Congress on Justice, Law and Governance for Environmental Sustainability (a pre-Rio conference) I was full of hope that just maybe we might be able to come up with some concrete legal solutions (i.e making Ecocide a crime), to halt humanity in its current trajectory of destroying the environment.

The World Congress is a closed-door invitation-only event.  It brought together some of the top legal minds in the world; Attorney-Generals, Chief Prosecutors, Auditors-General, Chief Justices, Senior Judges and other legal practitioners to discuss the role of the law in achieving sustainable development and to create a document to be taken  to world leaders at the Earth Summit.

The event opened on the 17th at the impressive Tribunal de Justica, Rio De Janeiro.  Achim Steiner, the UN’s Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director, gave an inspiring speech whilst Ricardo Lorenzetti, the Supreme Court Chief Justice of Argentina, made clear the importance of the judiciary in ensuring governments do not  renege on their promises. We then took a shuttle bus 100 km out of Rio to the Portabello Resort in Mangaratiba; where surrounded by luscious green mountains and a palm tree-lined private beach, it was quite easy to forget the urgency of addressing the critical issues humanity and the Earth are facing.

In Mangaratiba the first day opened with Bakary Kante, UNEP’s Director of the Division of Environmental Conventions. He is a clear leader with a strong moral radar. Kante emphasised that the outcome of the World Congress “must mark environmental law history” and that “we cannot have an elephant give birth to a mouse”. The following days were long, and heated discussions took place relating to the nexus between human rights and environmental rights, and the need to identify transnational environmental crimes. In these sessions I emphasised the need to create a crime of Ecocide which led to fruitful discussions; it was evident that there was much support for the idea. I also took up Bakary Kante’s call for participants to put in writing any substantial proposals to be included in the final outcome document.  It was then up to fate. Whilst a select few disappeared behind closed doors to determine the content of the final document, we were left with Bobby McFerrin’s classic tune being strummed on a guitar with the hopeful words ringing in our ears, “Don’t worry, be happy.”

The plenary reconvened 2 hours behind schedule, and the draft final Outcome document was read out. One of the positive outcomes of the document was that it stressed the need for UNEP to be transformed to allow it to advance the global law making agenda – but where were the laws suggested? It failed to take into account a number of proposals – including any reference to the law of Ecocide, or even the need to develop international environmental crimes.  I later found out that the proposal to include making Ecocide a crime had been opposed strongly by one country, which one was not disclosed. The Latin American countries had reached a separate agreement which seemed stronger referencing environmental rights and an international court for the environment.

People wanted to speak. The steering committee rejected the call for comments until one participant stood up and spoke out about the importance for us to be able to comment.  At which point things heated up. Others started to speak out too; a number of lawyers raised a number of issues highlighting their discontent with the Outcome document.  I stood up and pointed to the  footnote in the text which read: “ this declaration attempts to capture the wide range of views of participants….it does not represent a formally negotiated outcome nor does it necessarily represent…consensus on all issues.” My proposal to call on our world leaders to make Ecocide a crime should have been included, or at the very least the emphasis on developing environmental crimes – which had been discussed extensively and was supported by a number of lawyers present.

When the plenary finally came to a close, it was unclear whether these comments would be taken into consideration.  The final session was held in the Supreme Court. We all wanted to hear the outcome of the final document and the translation of the Portuguese Latin American agreement. But it never came. The Outcome document was not presented, nor was any part of it read out; instead one of the steering committee announced that it had been adopted by consensus.  What happened next left me questioning the whole system: for the next ten minutes a Brazilian soprano singer sang. Her voice soared, but what of the outcome? The situation was quite bizarre.

Bakary Kante spoke in the closing session that the World Congress marked a point in history where we were all starting on a journey to achieving something beautiful.  Given the urgency of the problems we are facing, I just hope the journey is a short one. Perhaps the next World Congress should be held at a Tar Sands resort.