The Verdict of the International Monsanto Tribunal

A day after the international peasant’s day, the Monsanto Tribunal has taken place in The Hague. The International Monsanto Tribunal is a unique “Opinion Tribunal” convened as a civil society initiative to hold Monsanto accountable for human rights violations, crimes against humanity, and ecocide. On the 15th and 16th of October 2016, five international and eminent judges heard different testimonies from victims, related to six main questions. Today they have delivered (livestreamed) in The Hague their legal opinion of the legal obligations and consequences of some of the activities of the Monsanto Company, following procedures of the International Court of Justice.

The Tribunal represents an important step to advance towards developing mechanisms to hold corporations accountable for social and environmental crimes. Organizing groups behind the Monsanto Tribunal include the Organic Consumers AssociationNavdanyaIFOAM Organics International, the Biovision Foundation and Regeneration International.

The tribunal has been developing its argumentation through different sections, each dealing with relevant questions related to the violations of 1) right to a healthy environment; 2) right to food; 3) right to health; 4) right to freedom for scientific research; 5) complicity in war crimes; and 6) the rights of the Earth or the crimes of ecocide.

Right to a Healthy Environment

Based on the evidence to answer Question 1, the Tribunal concludes that Monsanto has engaged in practices which have negatively impacted the right to a healthy environment. Specifically, it stated:

The Monsanto Tribunal hearings allowed for the gathering of testimonies related to various impacts on human health (especially on farmers), soils, plants, aquatic organisms, animal health and biodiversity. These testimonies also included the impacts of spraying crop protection products (herbicides, pesticides). In addition, the information collected also shed light on the impacts on indigenous communities and peoples in many countries, and on the absence of adequate information given to those concerned.

Right to Food

The Right to Food understands food as a fundamental right for individuals and communities. In this section, the Tribunal mentioned that the hearings accounted for negative impacts on production systems and ecosystems, the appearance of invasive species and the loss of efficiency of Roundup over time. The Tribunal highlighted some farmers were sentenced to pay royalties after their fields were contaminated by Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), while others stated that the corporation is taking over the seed market, even though Monsanto’s products are not as productive as promised. In response to Question 2, the Tribunal concluded that:

Monsanto has engaged in practices that have negatively impacted the right to food. Monsanto’s activities affect food availability for individuals and communities and interfere with the ability of individuals and communities to feed themselves directly or to choose non-genetically modified seeds. In addition, genetically modified seeds are not always affordable for farmers and threaten biodiversity. Monsanto’s activities and products cause damage to soil, water and to the environment more generally. The Tribunal concludes that food sovereignty is also affected and underlines the cases in which genetic contamination of fields forced farmers to pay royalties to Monsanto or even to abandon their non-GMO crops due to this contamination. There is indeed an infringement on the right to food because of aggressive marketing on GMOs which can force farmers to buy new seeds every year. The dominant agro-industrial model can be criticized even more strongly because other models – such as agroecology – exist that respect the right to food.

Right to Health

The right to health is intertwined with the rights to food, water and sanitation, and to a healthy environment. It encompasses not only physical health but also mental and social health (the latter being right to housing, access to safe water, etc). The Tribunal recalled that Monsanto has manufactured and distributed many dangerous substances, undermining on many occasions the right to health (e.g PCBs or persistent organic pollutants were exclusively commercialized by Monsanto between 1935 and 1979, despite the fact that the company knew about their deleterious health impacts). The Tribunal also gave special mention to the (somewhat contested) risks that glyphosate poses for health and mentions the lack of scientific consensus and the existing controversy about the impacts of GMOs on human health. On this latter point, it also pointed out that:

The controversy is embedded in a context of opacity on GMO studies, and even on the inability of researchers to conduct independent research.

For all this, the Tribunal concluded that Monsanto has engaged in practices that negatively impacted the right to health.

Right to freedom indispensable for scientific research

The “freedom indispensable for scientific research” closely relates to freedom of thought and expression, as well as the right to information. The Tribunal stated that:

Some of Monsanto’s practices mentioned in the testimonies of agronomists and molecular biologists have resulted in court convictions for the company. Among those practices are: illegal GMO plantations; resorting to studies misrepresenting the negative impacts of Roundup by limiting the analysis to glyphosate only while the product is a combination of substances; massive campaigns aiming at discrediting the results of independent scientific studies. These strategies led, for example, to the withdrawal of a study published in an international journal and to the loss of a job for a scientist working in a governmental health agency.

This has led the Tribunal to consider that Monsanto’s conduct is negatively affecting the right to freedom indispensable for scientific research.

Complicity in War Crimes

This section was dealing with the 70 million liters of Agent Orange (containing dioxin) which were sprayed on approximately 2.6 million hectares of land, between 1962 and 1973, in the context of the Vietnam war. This chemical caused great harm to the Vietnamese population. However, due to the current state of international law and the absence of specific evidence, the Tribunal could not give any definitive answer on this point. Nevertheless, it noted that if the crime of Ecocide would be added in International law, the reported facts concerning the responsibility of the harm induced by Agent Orange could fall within the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Crime of Ecocide

The international community today understands that preserving the integrity of ecosystems and a healthy environment is vital for enabling society and securing a life of dignity for present and future generations. Therefore, attacks against the health and integrity of the environment are unethical human activities and subject to criminal opprobrium. Despite the patchwork of elements of criminal environmental protections established in domestic and international environmental law, as well as in international criminal law, gaps of protection remain. The Tribunal stressed that international law has yet to articulate in precise terms criminal responsibility for the crime of ecocide, whether committed in times of peace or in the context of armed conflict.

The Tribunal understands the crime of ecocide as “causing serious damage or destroying the environment, so as to significantly and durably alter the global commons or ecosystem services upon which certain human groups rely”. This definition identifies the specific elements of material conduct that arise in the crime of ecocide. In addition to these elements, the crime of ecocide also involves general criminal elements, including: knowledge and intent; complicity; and corporate criminal responsibility. Regarding Monsanto’s conduct in relation to ecocide, the Tribunal concludes that:

if such a crime of ecocide were recognized in international criminal law, the activities of Monsanto could possibly constitute a crime of ecocide. Several of the company’s activities may fall within this infraction, such as the manufacture and supply of glyphosate-based herbicides to Colombia in the context of its plan for aerial application on coca crops, which negatively impacted the environment and the health of local populations; the large-scale use of dangerous agrochemicals in industrial agriculture; and the engineering, production, introduction and release of genetically engineered crops. Severe contamination of plant diversity, soils and waters would also fall within the qualification of ecocide. Finally, the introduction of persistent organic pollutants such as PCB into the environment causing widespread, long-lasting and severe environmental harm and affecting the right of the future generations could fall within the qualification of ecocide as well.

Last but not least, the last part of the Tribunal’s argumentation was dedicated to problematising the existing and growing gap between international human rights and corporate accountability. It called for two urgent actions:

  1. The need to assert the primacy of international human and environmental rights law over international financial institutions.
  2.  The need to hold non-state actors responsible within international human rights law. Meaning that it’s time to consider multinational enterprises as subjects of law that could be sued in the case of infringement of fundamental rights.

The tribunal concluded that:

  • Monsanto has violated human rights to food, health, a healthy environment and the freedom indispensable for independent scientific research.
  • ‘ecocide’ should be recognized as a crime in international law.    
  • human rights and environmental laws are undermined by corporate-friendly trade and investment regulation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *