For a international environmental criminal court

By Uli Schmetzer

VENICE, October 4, 2009 – Inside the Doge’s Palace in a city that is in the frontline of global warming a group of crime busters, lawyers and experts tried to kick-start this weekend the idea of an International Environmental Criminal Court that would bring to justice those culprits deliberately polluting our planet.
The idea is no novelty but the meeting of the ‘World Venice Forum 2009’ was given impetus by the recent revelation that organized crime syndicates have been ‘dumping’ toxic waste, some of it radioactive, into the oceans, close to coastlines frequented by tourists.
Sea-dumping apparently became rampant after international restrictions in 1989 banned the transfer of toxic waste to other countries. This eliminated or curtailed the practice of dumping that waste in third world countries, mainly landfills and chasms in Africa, the Middle East and the Far East.
(The cargoes are ‘dumped’ to avoid the high cost associated with the process of incinerating and burying toxic waste. Mafia-like organizations earn hundreds of millions of dollars by avoiding expensive disposal procedures. Leoluca Orlando, the former mayor of Palermo and current MP, said the mob earns ‘billions of dollars for its toxic waste disposal…..Can you imagine that it is possible to happen without persons inside the system, inside the political system, inside the bureaucracy, inside the State, not being connected with the criminals?” he asked)
In the latest shock revelation last month as many as 32 ships, all apparently carrying cargoes of chemical waste, may have been scuttled off the shores of the Adriatic Sea province of Calabria, Italy, by the local Mafia, the ‘Ndrangheta.
The planned criminal court, to which nations must subscribe, would function similar to the International Court on War Crimes at The Hague. Appointed lawyers and judges would prosecute those executives, bureaucrats, plant managers and criminal gangs whose illicit activities damaged the environment and endangered life. Their crimes would be considered violations of human rights.
In its three-day deliberation the Venice Forum provided stunning evidence how easy it is under the current global system for unscrupulous companies or the mafia to pollute the oceans, rivers, landfills or chasms by ‘dumping’ toxic waste or chemicals rather then have them incinerated and buried.
Forum participants offered startling testimonials how the villains, if caught, escape with minimum penalties, a virtual incentive to do it again. It was told there is tacit and criminal cooperation between corporations and governments whose bureaucrats turn a blind eye to environmental malpractices or receive lucrative kickbacks to look the other way.
“Beside each environmental crime there is an act of public corruption,” Antonio Gustavo Gomez, the attorney general of Tucuman province in Argentina told the Forum to long applause.
Added Silvestro Greco, head of the environmental agency in Calabria: “Waste disposal plants in Europe work at only 30 per cent of their capacity when the waste should be queuing up outside.”
His question was: Where does the rest of the waste go?
Today, one month after the Italian daily Il Manifesto revealed that a drone submarine had located the Cunski, a ship sunk 22 nautical miles off the Calabrian port of Cetraro in 1992 with 180 barrels of toxic waste stowed in its hull, neither local authorities nor the Italian government have been capable – or willing - to determine if the leakage from these barrels has poisoned the sea environment in the area or what substance exactly these barrels contained. Obviously afraid the lucrative tourist trade will suffer any inquiry is likely to be literally a whitewash. After all who can determine if a passing tourist caught his cancer while swimming on a polluted beach – years later?
Piero Grasso, head of Italy’s Anti-Mafia Force, told the Forum the Italian Mafia has an estimated annual income of 20 billion Euro and had managed to siphon off a quarter of the country’s economy. In one of the intercepted telephone conversations a Mafioso had told a boss: “If you start of with waste you’ll finish up with gold.”
(Italy’s rightwing pro-business government has since banned telephone interceptions, apparently to avoid eavesdropping on the Mafia and politicians)
In 2002 the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior returned to Italy two barrels of the thousands of highly toxic waste dumped into the Black Sea and washed ashore in 1987. It found 367 barrels washed up on the Turkish coast. Greenpeace identified the companies transporting and organizing the sale but the companies claimed the barrels were supposed to be incinerated and then taken to a landfill in Rumania. No action was taken.
Just how elusive convictions can be was illustrated by Paul Garlick, a specialized lawyer in international rights, who cited the case of the Trafigura transport company whose ship Probo Koala dropped off toxic waste in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. The dump affected the lives of 100,000 people and killed sixteen. The company eventually paid 1,150 Euros to each of the 31,000 most affected victims but Garlick said on each of its runs, known as ‘caustic washing,’ Trafigura gained a profit of seven million Euro.
“We need an International and a European Environmental Criminal Court to show these companies and their executives that they can’t get away with putting their personal profits before safety,” Garlick told theForum.
He advocated the court must have international jurisdiction, international prosecutors, international rules on evidence, international extradition of wanted criminals and no impunity for executives, multinationals and state officials. Among its jurisdiction would be to ensure that vessels that carry dangerous cargos like oil or chemicals do have the mandatory double hulls to protect the environment against spills if they run aground or are wrecked.
To understand the scope of the ‘caustic washing racket’ it suffices to follow the fate of the vessel Cunski whose wreck was located off Calabria last month after a Ndrangheta boss turned informant. He had blown the whistle THREE years ago on the profitable sinking of ships off Calabria with toxic waste aboard. But he was ignored - until now.
According to the investigation by the daily Il Manifesto the Cunski changed names four times before it was scuttled in 1992 off Calabria with its toxic cargo. Alone the boat owner that brought the crew back ashore was paid 100,000 Euros. Officially however the Cunski sank off Alang, a notorious cemetery for scuttled ship on the coast of India where scavengers take the wrecks apart so it becomes virtually impossible to identify them later for insurance purposes.
The Cunski had already been mentioned in 1988 when Italian transporters sent to Lebanon for disposal 15,800 barrels and 20 containers of chemical waste including pesticides, explosives, expired pharmaceuticals and heavy metals. The scandal was exposed. This prompted the Lebanese government to ask Italy to take the cargo back. One of the four vessels carrying the cargo back was the Cunski.
The ship was also involved in the famous waste-runs to Latin America when Venezuela turned back the vessel Lynx after discovering it carried not the kind of cargo that was named on its manifest.
Over recent years it has become obvious that criminal organizations are working hand in glove with officials, bureaucrats and insurance brokers who help falsify documents, manifests and even receipts that toxic waste was properly disposed of.
There was a certain irony in the attempted delivery of an environmental criminal court in Venice this weekend. The participants stared out into the Venetian lagoon where huge passenger liners arrive and depart daily, exerting underwater pressure on the delicate foundations of the city in the water, destroying Venice faster, so experts say, than sea levels rising due to global warming. But profit-orientated Venetian merchants do not want banned cruise ships that carry thousands of potential customers.
At the same time a group of Venetian environmentalists wrote a letter to the Forum expressing their hope some of the speakers invited to address the Forum this weekend could be subjected to a (criminal) inquiry for their role in the controversial construction of the Mo.SE project if the environmental court is created. The Mo.SE project is building barriers at the three entrances to the Venetian lagoon to save Venice from flooding. But environmentalists and engineers allege it will cause enormous damage to the ecological balance of the lagoon in which the city is located.