People’s Tribunal to Assess Fracking and Human Rights

When the state no longer enforces its own legal standards on human rights or ecological protection, often in deference to corporate partners, the logical response is to establish a commons-based alternative – a people’s tribunal. That’s what is now planned in the case of fracking and its implications for human rights.

The Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal (PPT) has scheduled a session in March 2017 to “consider whether sufficient evidence exists to indict certain named States on charges of failing adequately to respect the human rights of citizens as a result of permitting, and failing to adopt a precautionary approach to, hydraulic fracturing and other techniques of unconventional oil and gas extraction within their jurisdictions.”  The Tribunal is an internationally recognized public opinion tribunal functioning independently of state authorities and operating out of Rome. The Tribunal will hold a week of hearings in both the US and UK.

Governments take great pains to prevent their most sacrosanct policies from being questioned in courts of law.  Consider how the US Government short-circuited any significant court rulings about the NSA’s extensive secret surveillance of citizens, in violation of the Fifth Amendment.  It took Edward Snowden's revelations to force judicial review. 

We’ve been here before, of course. The lawless Vietnam War was a prime example. As a corrective to the state crimes committed in that instance, philosopher Bertrand Russell and Jean Paul Sartre organized the Vietnam War Crimes Tribunal in 1967 to hear evidence about violations of the citizen’s basic human rights. In that tradition, today’s PPT will assess the human rights implications of fracking.

The PPT obviously does not have the coercive powers of the state, nor any state-based legal authority. The world’s governments are free to ignore the judgments of the PPT, as they very well might. But as Russell said in opening up the War Crimes Tribunal, “We are not judges. We are witnesses.  Our task is to make mankind bear witness to these terrible crimes and to unite humanity on the side of justice in Vietnam.”  So the PPT convenes itself, independently of states, politics and vested interests, and invokes the broad, recognized standards of international human rights law.  In this case, it will gather evidence about the actual or likely human rights consequences of fracking in various countries. 

The PPT explains its process in this way:

PPT Sessions are virtually identical to courtroom proceedings in which a complainant or class of complainants brings an action against a government or private party and asks that they be judged against legal standards. The Peoples’ Tribunal, comprised of eleven members, including five to seven jurists of high standing in international human rights law as well as expert in the field, along with internationally well known representative of civil society, hears testimony from victims, witnesses and experts in various fields, hears arguments from prosecuting and defense attorneys, deliberates and in time issues judgments and recommends remedies.

“The importance and strength of decisions by the PPT rest on the moral weight of the causes and arguments to which they give credibility, as well as the integrity and capability to judge of the Tribunal members.” The goal of PPT Sessions is “recovering the authority of the Peoples when the States and the International Bodies failed to protect the right of the Peoples.”

Complaints heard by the Tribunal are submitted by the victims or by groups or individuals representing them. The PPT calls together all parties concerned and offers defendants the opportunity to make their own arguments heard. The panel of judges is selected for each case by combining members who belong to a permanent list and individuals who are recognized for their competence and integrity.

Since 1979, the PPT has held about forty sessions on various topics, including the behavior of agrochemical companies and the Canadian mining industry in Latin America.  The outcomes of the PPT sessions allow for witnesses to be publicly heard and for a public record to be established.  The proceedings also have an obvious public education dimension.

This latest session of the PPT is being jointly organized by the Global Network for the Study of Human Rights and the Environment (UK), the Environment and Human Rights Advisory (USA) and the Human Rights Consortium (UK).  The Tribunal will consider a number of specific issues, such as the impacts of fracking on physical and mental health, on hydrology and seismic activity, and on social life.  It will also look at the effects of the entire fuels infrastructure on people’s human rights, and the climate impacts of fracking.

Like any commons, the PPT does not go of itself; it relies upon people’s active participation and help.  People are invited to submit witness statements, donate to help fund the proceedings (travel, lodging, office services); conduct mini-tribunals in their countries; and to endorse the Tribunal.