Canadian Paul Watson, head of the Sea Shepherd Society has made a name for himself and his organization by aggressively disrupting the slaughter of whales. The Society was widely reviled in Canada for opposing the seal hunt. His ships typically fly a skull and cross-bones emblem previously associated with pirates. Lately he is a fugitive being sought under an Interpol warrant based on a complaint from Costa Rica and Japan after skipping bail in Germany.
Meanwhile, recent research shows that whales are highly social animals that form different ‘clans’, communicate in various dialects, and demonstrate other learned behaviour. Based on these discoveries, two scientists presented a Declaration of Cetacean Rights (http://www.cetaceanrights.org) at the conference of the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science held in Vancouver in January.
The aim is to have cetaceans (dolphins, porpoises, whales) recognized as non-human ‘persons’ in order for them to be accorded some legal recognition under the law. Another organization, The Nonhuman Rights Project seeks to take the debate to the United Nations and into the courts. Their website, http://www.nonhumanrightsproject.org, explains it this way:
“Our mission is to change the common law status of at least some nonhuman animals from mere “things,” which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to “persons,” who possess such fundamental rights as bodily integrity and bodily liberty, and those other legal rights to which evolving standards of morality, scientific discovery, and human experience entitle them.”
In this context the obvious question is, “What’s the harm?” and “What’s the crime?” Are the commercial whalers the injured parties or are the slaughtered families of whales the victims? Is the Sea Shepherd Society a legitimate protector of non-human life and social systems or a rogue threat on the high seas?
This is part of a trend toward questioning the ethical and moral justification for human activity that damages or threatens to damage our natural world. A lawyer in Scotland, Polly Higgins, proposed in 2010 that the United Nations recognize “Ecocide” as an “international crime against nature and humanity”. In 2011 a mock trial was held in the United Kingdom Supreme Court to deliberate charges of ecocide against several ‘defendants’ including Canadian executives of tar sands projects. All of the judicial participants were actual lawyers and jurists. (The proceedings can be viewed online) The trial delivered a guilty verdict on two counts of ecocide:
“The chief executives may have been actors, the corporations fictional and the trial a mock-up, but the circumstances surrounding the so-called “crimes” – the destruction of ecosystems during both the Gulf oil spill and the mining of crude oil in Alberta – are real. So is the call for a new law protecting the natural world, placing ecocide among the most heinous crimes known … Companies cannot be given a licence to spill and kill as long as they clean up the mess,” said Michael Mansfield QC, appearing for the prosecution”
(Mock trial finds Tar Sands spill ‘bosses’ guilty of ecocide, The Independent, Oct. 1, 2011)
How does Canada compare against these emerging standards of behaviour? Apparently, not very well. Under the present federal government, the Kyoto Accord was not just abandoned but ridiculed. Canada reportedly urged other nations to also desert the agreement. At home, environmental ministries were gutted, budgets slashed, conservation and research programs cancelled, environmental organizations were classified as potential ‘terrorist’ threats, their charitable status was attacked and they were accused of being ‘foreign funded’ and therefore somehow disloyal and subversive. In July, Canadian scientists staged a march “to mourn the “death of evidence” in what organizers say is the federal government’s war on science … It’s clear that the Harper government does not value science or evidence and is systematically trying to reduce the flow of scientific information to Canadians.” At the same time, the government’s stated aim is to triple the production of oil from tar sands without regard for carbon emissions, environmental assessments are being relaxed, cabinet gave itself the final say on approval of oil pipelines and a carbon tax is vigorously opposed.
In future, would any of these actions, or the government’s failure to act, be considered an ‘international crime against nature and humanity’? Ecocide isn’t recognized as a crime yet and we won’t see politicians or business executives in the court dock anytime soon. But the debate has begun, “What’s the harm? What’s the crime?