By Patrick Alley, Nicole Barrett and Richard J. Rogers
Jair Bolsonaro’s ascension to the Brazilian presidency increases the threat of environmental disaster not just in Brazil, but it has global implications for climate change catastrophe. And Bolsonaro’s dangerous proposals would not only destroy Brazil’s environmental protections; they would also likely result in widescale human rights violations that could constitute crimes against humanity. So, could the International Criminal Court (ICC) yet play a decisive role in preventing Bolsonaro's more destructive policies?
Bolsonaro proposes to relax environmental protections and abolish Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment; dangerous enough ideas in a country that is home to the majority of the Amazon rainforest, but even more threatening when coupled with his proposals to open up indigenous territories to mining and other economic activities; crack down on civil society; and relax gun ownership laws, especially in rural areas. His planned policies would likely hand the already powerful agribusiness lobby - the "Ruralistas" - a carte blanche to expand land grabbing on a massive scale at the expense of Brazil’s most vulnerable people.
Brazil is already the deadliest country in the world in which to defend your land, with at least 57 people murdered last year, 25 of them in three massacres. Eighty percent of these died defending land in the Amazon rainforest. In recent weeks, land rights leader Aluisio Sampaio, aka Alenquer, was murdered in his home in Castelo de Sonhos in Pará state. Amid these gross violations of human rights, Bolsonaro calls for more violence and destruction.
In the wake of the IPCC’s dire warnings earlier this month, that we have just 12 years to prevent climate disaster, the UN Secretary General was clear: “We need to end deforestation and plant billions of trees.” Flying in the face of this declaration, Bolsonaro’s proposed policies, including his pledge to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, are openly hostile to Brazil’s population and environment, not to mention the world’s ability to mitigate climate change, as the Amazon is one of the world's most effective means of carbon storage.
What can be done? Consumer boycotts of Brazilian products and resources, responsible foreign investment, and international political pressure may help. Given the impending climate crisis, promoting policies likely to result in mass land grabbing, illegal evictions, and destruction of the rainforest is malevolent. But a closer look reveals such policies could also amount to international crimes.
A widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population can amount to a crime against humanity. And the ICC's Rome Statute also lists "forcible transfer of population" (mass evictions) is one of the underlying crimes. Environmentalists were heartened when, in 2016, the prosecutor of the ICC, Fatou Bensouda, issued a policy paper claiming that her office will prioritise international crimes resulting in “the destruction of the environment, the illegal exploitation of natural resources, or the illegal dispossession of land.”
Compelling submissions of such crimes have been made to the ICC, urging the prosecutor to open an investigation in Cambodia, where widespread crimes associated with mass land grabbing, including forcible evictions, murders and illegal detentions have led to some of the worst deforestation and dispossession anywhere in the world. The global community awaits to see if the ICC will follow through on its proclaimed policy. If the court proceeds, it would send a powerful message, not only to Cambodian leaders, but also to politicians and corporations around the globe like Bolsonaro.
Those with the power to effect change must act fast. In 2016, the ICC policy paper was a wake-up call for political leaders intent on stealing their country’s natural resources. The recent IPCC report and Bolsonaro’s manifesto now provide the ICC prosecutor with her very own wake-up call.
Patrick Alley is co-founder of environmental and corruption watchdog Global Witness; Nicole Barrett is director of the International Justice and Human Rights Clinic at the Allard School of Law and a former war crimes prosecutor; and Richard J. Rogers is a founding partner at Global Diligence LLP.
Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the authors.