Fifty Years After the UN’s Stockholm Environment Conference, Leaders Struggle to Realize its Vision of ‘a Healthy Planet’

STOCKHOLM—Diplomats from countries around the world gathered here last week to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment—the meeting that made the environment a prominent international issue. 

Last week’s two-day event was both a celebration of the principles germinated during the first Stockholm Conference and a marker of how far humanity has come, or in some cases, how far the world has yet to go to deliver on principles ranging from safeguarding ecosystems for future generations to environmentally sustainable economic and social development.

As expected, governments made no new binding commitments on climate change or environmental protection at last week’s meeting and the official outcome of the gathering is a document with ten recommendations for lawmakers with general tenets such as “placing human well-being at the center of a healthy planet and prosperity for all,” “recognizing and implementing the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment” and aligning “public and private financial flows with environmental, climate and sustainable development commitments.”

But the official proceedings were only part of the story of the Stockholm + 50 meeting. Like its namesake event, Stockholm + 50 attracted environmentalists, scientists, academics and other members of civil society to protest, hold their own events, network and lobby officials.

Hundreds of official side sessions took place on topics from “wellbeing economies,” the environmental rule of law, the human right to a healthy and sustainable environment and the rights of nature.

Outside the Stockholmsmässan center, unofficial events were held around the city before and during the official meeting. Greta Thunberg and her youth advocacy group Fridays for Future protested what they say has been bureaucrats’ inaction in addressing climate change.

And multiple events took place discussing the possible creation of a new international crime of “ecocide.” That term held particular significance: During the 1972 conference, then-prime minister of Sweden Olof Palme first used the word ecocide in reference to the United States military’s extensive bombing and use of Agent Orange to defoliate the jungles of Vietnam. Within the event center last week, meeting participants of all stripes could be seen wearing quarter-sized “Ecocide Law” pins—the term having evolved to describe all forms of widespread environmental destruction like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest. 

Some Stockholm + 50 attendees wore “Ecocide Law” buttons around the meeting to show their support for the campaign to make ecocide an international crime. Credit: Katie Surma, Inside Climate News.

Unlike the 1972 event, where side events were largely isolated from official proceedings, talks on ecocide, the rights of nature and other unconventional ideas attracted the attention and participation of officials from mainstream organizations like the International Monetary Fund, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and former and current government officials from various countries. 

At the rights of nature meeting, the vice president of Bolivia, David Choquehuanca Céspedes, told an 80-person audience via video that the world should recognize the rights of Mother Earth, and that “the Earth feels, the Earth thinks, the Earth cries, the Earth feeds itself,” and is “a living being.” 

After the two-day conference, U.N. Environment Program Executive Director Inger Anderson told reporters that the meeting “got a lot of voices, we got a lot of newer ideas inside a U.N. forum…and I do believe that sooner or later, words that are bandied about, including ecocide, will walk its way into the United Nation’s vocabulary.” 

Here’s a rundown of what was said about some of those ideas and how they’re making their way into the mainstream.

Ecocide

Environmental advocates have long derided what they deem “soft” international environmental law that allows governments to set their own targets on carbon emissions, biodiversity and the like. 

Whatever the merits of that position, the non-governmental organization Stop Ecocide International has proposed another option: making ecocide a crime before the International Criminal Court alongside genocide and war crimes. Jojo Mehta, the co-founder and executive director of Stop Ecocide, said the crime is a missing piece of the global environmental governance puzzle and would deter decisions that lead to, or could lead to, mass ecological harm. 

In the days leading up to the Stockholm + 50 conference, Stop Ecocide hosted a series of talks in the city about the proposed crime that featured lawmakers from Sweden, Finland and Iceland, as well as Indigenous leaders, economists, scientists and lawyers. 

One of those speakers was Ralph Chami, a financial economist at the International Monetary Fund, who told live and virtual audiences that an ecocide crime would help restructure incentives for businesses and governments, effectively reorienting the relationship between development and the environment to one where humans are more likely to live within ecological boundaries. 

Chami’s work has, in part, focused on how to monetarily value nature and the services it provides. In one case, he determined that the world’s current stock of great whales are worth more than $1 trillion, based on the carbon sequestration services they provide, their role in marine ecosystems and the global commercial whale-watching business. His financial valuation of “natural capital” gives governments and businesses a measurable way to value the services of nature and justify its protection, such as through legislation like an ecocide crime, Chami said. 

At another event, Nnimmo Bassey, director of the ecological think-tank Health of Mother Earth Foundation, said an international ecocide crime would be a “key signpost” needed to guide humanity in “the right direction.” He won the 2010 Right Livelihood Award, which is often called the “alternative Nobel Prize.”

“The absence of a mechanism for holding humans and organizations responsible for massive destruction of Mother Earth has allowed things that are more or less unimaginable,” Bassey said, referring in part to oil drilling fields in the Niger Delta. “Having a law that would provide the necessary checks is what is needed today.”

The significance of the 50th anniversary of Palme’s invocation of ecocide catalyzed a new wave of support for the Stop Ecocide campaign. Faith leaders from around the world, Right Livelihood Laureates, youth advocates and participants in official “leadership” events at the conference all called for the adoption of an international ecocide crime. 

Previously, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, Pope Francis have expressed support while the International Corporate Governance Network, a member-based group of investors responsible for management of $70 trillion of assets, called on governments to criminalize ecocide. 

Many of those supporters say an ecocide crime would affect behavioral change because it places the freedom of individuals on the line: instead of companies, insurers, financiers and government officials receiving a fine or other sanctions for pollution, individuals within those organizations making decisions about what environmental risk to take would face personal accountability for those choices. That shift in liability would effectively force officials to take precautions when they act. 

In the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, for instance, BP and other operators of the rig, among other penalties, paid upwards of $20 billion in civil and criminal settlements under the U.S. Clean Water Act, Migratory Birds Treaty Acts and Oil Pollution Act.

Although BP pleaded guilty to felony manslaughter, environmental crimes and obstruction of Congress, none of its representatives, including the wellsite leaders who the company said made decisions leading to the explosion that caused the spill, received jail time (though some were criminally prosecuted for a misdemeanor pollution charge and for obstructing justice).

The initial explosion killed 11 people, injured 17 and caused damage that spewed over 130 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, killing and sickening millions of birds and aquatic species like dolphins, sea turtles and whales.

In Stockholm, Björn Fondén, a climate change specialist at the U.N., condemned the way leaders have so far handled solving environmental problems, telling attendees at one of the official leadership events that world leaders’ approach to solving environmental problems is akin to the sinking of the Titanic. 

“We have hit the iceberg. We have millions of people dying in the cold water as we speak because the rich refuse to share their lifeboats and continue drinking their champagne fully aware of the future awaiting the rest of us if they do not act right now,” he said, before calling on leaders to criminalize ecocide and end fossil fuel subsidies.

Discussions around ecocide took place against the backdrop of the Russian attack on Ukraine, which has renewed the world’s interest in international criminal law, its utility and purpose. The International Criminal Court has opened an investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity taking place in the country. 

Speaking at another Stop Ecocide event, Tarja Halonen, former President of Finland, referred to Russia’s war in Ukraine in arguing that now is the time to strengthen international law, including adding ecocide to the short list of international crimes. 

“The rules-based international order has brought immense prosperity and peace, which was not experienced before its creation,” she said. “I think that the respect of the rights of nature is a logical enlargement of this principle.…a new international law on ecocide is a solid idea to prevent serious, destructive actions.” 

The Rights of Nature

A few doors down from where diplomats were gathered during the meeting’s three plenary sessions, a woman in a blue Sami dress opened a panel discussion on the rights of nature with a Joik, a traditional song of the Sami people who have historically occupied parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. 

The rights of nature, both a legal movement and a worldview, aims to give legal rights to elements of the natural world while transforming humankind’s perception of its place in the world.

The concept has roots in Indigenous value systems and has taken root in the legal systems of at least 11 countries around the world, including in many U.S. communities. While the rights of nature movement has evolved and grown over the past 15 years, the idea has been largely eschewed by international law and policymakers.

But, that seems to be changing. 

Mainstream environmentalists and policymakers are far more aware of and open to the unique legal developments and the ideas behind them. The Stockholm + 50 panel on the rights of nature movement featured a former U.N. Assistant Secretary General, government officials, an Indigenous leader, an activist and a renowned environmental scientist and economist. 

Patricia Gualinga, a leader of the Kichwa peoples of Sarayaku in southern Ecuador, speaks about the rights of nature during an official side event at the Stockhom + 50 meeting. Credit: Katie Surma, Inside Climate News.

The collective sentiment among the panel was that existing laws and mindsets about the environment had failed to halt unsustainable harm to nature. 

“Since the 1970s we’ve tripled the use of materials like fossil fuels, biomass and metals,” Anders Wiljkman, a former member of the European Parliament, told an audience of about 80 people. “If we continue business as usual, we’ll double that volume by 2060…We have to rethink the way we manage resources and nature.” 

Patricia Gualinga, a leader of the Kichwa peoples of Sarayaku in southern Ecuador, said it is not enough for the rights of nature to be written into law, but that the world should adopt Indigenous communities’ values around nature: “It’s urgent that the world recognizes that nature is a living being like you like I are,” she said. “It’s a living being.”

In 2008 Ecuador enshrined the rights of nature into its constitution, but only recently began working on drafting legislation that would put the concept into practice—after the country’s Constitutional Court handed down a landmark ruling forcing the government’s hand. 

By giving nature legal rights, as opposed to conventional environmental protection laws, the movement both raises the level of legal protection nature is afforded and casts the issue as a moral, as well as regulatory, imperative. 

Part of that ethical shift is an unwinding of what Peter Doran, a law professor at Queen’s University Belfast, said is a colonial legacy exported by European countries that “translated nature into a series of objects for exchange of value in the economy.” Doran spoke about the groundswell of communities in support of the rights of nature in Ireland, a place that also was colonized, he said.

Like Chami’s argument that natural capital and an ecocide law can work together to place development decisions on a more sustainable path, Bruno Oberle, director-general of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, championed tying together the rights of nature movement with a cap-and-trade system for nature at both the global and national levels. 

​​“The root cause of this depletion is that we don’t value nature,” Oberle said. “We value it emotionally, we value it with words, but we don’t value it in economic terms. Nature doesn’t have a price and so we waste it, we overuse it and deplete it.”

An International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion

Among the thousands of participants packed into the event center was a smattering of young faces. 

Some of those youth activists are part of a growing cohort of people from climate-vulnerable countries who are campaigning for the U.N.’s International Court of Justice to weigh in on climate change. Specifically, they want the court to clarify whether countries have a legal responsibility to prevent their greenhouse gas emissions from causing harm outside their borders. 

To be successful, either a majority or two-thirds of the 193 U.N. countries (depending on how the U.N Charter is interpreted) would need to support a U.N. General Assembly resolution asking the court for a non-binding advisory opinion on the issue. 

Samira Ben Ali, a 24-year-old from Mayotte (a French territory located off the southeastern coast of Africa), is one of the activists pushing for the advisory opinion. She and her colleague, 21-year-old Sophie Pecqueur, attended the Stockholm + 50 conference to build support for their cause. 

Environmental justice advocates Samira Ben Ali (left) and Sophie Pecqueur (right) attended the Stockholm + 50 conference to advocate for an International Court of Justice advisory opinion on climate change. Credit: Katie Surma, Inside Climate News.

Ali, wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “Taking the world’s biggest problem to the world’s highest court,” said 30 percent of her island’s tropical coral reefs are set to disappear within a few years and its land is threatened by sea-level rise, pollution and deforestation. She sees an advisory opinion as a way to spur national action on climate change. 

“If an advisory opinion happens, national courts can look to the advisory opinion and base their rulings on it,” she said. “It could have a cascading effect.” 

For Pecqueur, who lives in France, youth advocates are looking to the International Court of Justice out of frustration with what she said is the “blah, blah, blah,” of governmental negotiations. 

“What officials are saying during the conference is true, we have to reduce our carbon emissions and stop damaging practices, but we can’t just say things we already know,” she said. “We need to take another step and go further.”

The questions that the youth campaign wants the court to answer—”What are the obligations of governments under international law to protect the rights of present and future generations against the adverse effects of climate change?” and “What are the responsibilities of governments to prevent their greenhouse gas emissions from causing harm outside their borders”—have roots in the 1972 Stockholm Convention’s resulting declaration.

That document enshrined the idea that humans have a “responsibility to protect and improve the environment for present and future generations” and that governments have a “responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.”  

So far, the youth advocates pushing for the advisory opinion have been joined by the government of Vanuatu and other Caribbean and South Pacific island nations, as well as some African countries. 

The Human Right to a Healthy Environment

One idea first planted at the 1972 Stockholm Conference that has had considerable success in later legal developments is the notion that humans have a “fundamental right” to “an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being.”

The human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, and versions of it, have steadily become adopted in about 150 countries (not including the United States). And last year, the U.N. Human Rights Council adopted a resolution recognizing the right. Now, advocates are fighting for the U.N. General Assembly to issue a resolution recognizing the right. 

During an official side event at the Stockholm + 50 meeting focused on that right, David Boyd, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, told a live audience that recognition of the right has changed people’s lives by catalyzing initiatives that have brought clean drinking water and sanitation services to communities, blocked unwanted oil and gas projects and given communities access to information about environmental decision making. 

“All social movements have used the power of human rights to achieve change in society,” Boyd said during the panel discussion.

Recognition of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is part of a widespread understanding that environmental degradation affects human dignity and rights, including the right to life and the rights of future generations. It is part of a reframing of the way humans have historically understood environmental issues, where environmental protection laws were relegated to the realm of policy decisions, separated out from human health and wellbeing. Today, classifying environmental protection as a “right” and connecting the effects of pollution to human health have elevated environmental protection into an ethical imperative.

Last year, the United Nations Human Rights Council created a new special rapporteur on human rights in the context of climate change. Courts around the world have issued landmark decisions holding governments and companies accountable for pollution under human rights law. And last month the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights issued a report on the impact of climate change on Filipinos’ human rights, finding that the world’s largest fossil fuel companies had “engaged in willful obfuscation and obstruction to prevent meaningful climate action.” 

The Legacy of the 1972 UN Stockholm Conference

In the lead up to the 1972 Stockholm Conference, the world had begun reckoning with a newfound understanding of humanity’s impact on the natural world. Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring exposed the dangers of pesticides and other chemicals, the 1968 “Earth Rise” photo seemed to capture the planet’s fragility in a new light, and scientists were learning more about linkages between pollution and human harm. 

Geopolitically, the world was in the heart of the cold war and on the back end of a wave of decolonization, leaving the global community split between industrialized countries and the developing world. Against that backdrop, 114 governments descended on Stockholm to confront growing global environmental problems and for the first time acknowledged the link between development and the environment. 

The official output of the conference was a U.N. report that contained a declaration of 26 principles, or shared ideas, of the participating governments about how to tackle environmental problems while achieving economic prosperity. The principles have shaped lawmaking at the international and national levels, but the unofficial consequences of the conference are considered to be its most important legacy. 

Governments, including the U.S., which showed strong support under then President Richard Nixon, created the U.N. Environment Program, which has helped coordinate global and regional action on environmental protection, spurred the development of new international laws like the ozone-protecting Montreal Protocol and helped create the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the scientific body that provides governments with reports on climate change.  

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 At the insistence of developing countries, UNEP was located in Nairobi, Kenya, giving the agency an on-the-ground view of issues facing those countries. The conference also had a catalytic effect on national environmental protection efforts, with about ten times as many new environmental protection agencies established within a decade of the conference. 

Fifty years later, the world is in what the U.N. calls a “triple planetary” crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. Last week, as governments took stock of the progress they have made, the frustration of other meeting attendees was palpable as they met over plant-based burgers and organic coffee.

Kamilia Kadzidlowska attended the Stockholm + 50 conference as a member of Parents for Future Global, an international group of parents advocating for intergenerational climate justice. Credit: Katie Surma, Inside Climate News.

Kamilia Kadzidlowska, a Polish mother who attended the meeting as part of the group Parents for Future Global, walked the halls of the event center feeling disappointed. Poland’s ambassador to Sweden had just delivered a speech that Kadzidlowska said falsely presented Poland as a country that wanted to tackle environmental problems but was now hamstrung from doing so by the war in Ukraine. 

“Poland is the most polluted country in the E.U.,” Kadzidlowska said. “Just before the war started, the government and fossil fuel companies launched a campaign telling citizens that coal is great and we should burn it forever. This is how Poland wants to handle the triple planetary crisis.” 

Sherri Crump

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