Rights of nature and human rights

Federal

Late October 2016 saw two significant events for the future of the environment and the rights of Indigenous Australians. The Australian Earth Law Alliance organised a Conference in Brisbane, ‘The Future of Environmental Law: politics, reform and community activism’; and the two-day conference, which was sold out, was followed by the Rights of Nature Tribunal, held symbolically in the Banco Court. Michelle Maloney, organiser of the Tribunal, explained the symbolism following a performance of Indigenous dance and music in the foyer of the court, where past justices wrapped in scarlet robes looked down upon the gathering. ‘The legal system, those judges and that court, as elsewhere in the country, had failed the environment and the Aboriginal peoples.’

Many of the conference participants attended the Tribunal, where the issues raised at the conference — lack of protection of the environment, the science behind that judgement, the ongoing correlative destruction of aboriginal culture and heritage, recommendations for reform of law and government policy, and community activism — were at the heart of the Tribunal proceedings. The cases heard by the Tribunal panel dealt with the serious threats of the combination of climate change, corporate greed and government failure to the future existence of the Fitzroy River, the forests of the country, the Great Artesian Basin and the Great Barrier Reef. Defendants included the federal government, state governments, the ‘unconventional gas industry’ (fracking) and the fossil fuel industry. Expert testimony, including convincing scientific studies, were provided to the Tribunal, as well as stories of aboriginal exclusion from the protection of the environment and the impact of that historic government policy and practice. The panel was reminded that the aborigines had exercised effective custodianship for at least 40 000 years.

The importance of recognising the rights of nature was emphasised in the face of inadequate government care for our natural community, as was the importance of understanding the interconnectedness of nature, aboriginal communities and the wider public.

The evidence from the Tribunal is likely to be carried over into a session next year of what is now constituted as the Australian Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal on the Rights of Nature, which is a regional chamber of the International Rights of Nature Tribunal, information about which may be found at 
— http://therightsofnature.org/rights-of-nature-tribunal/.

GILL BOEHRINGER is a former Head of Macquarie University Law School.

(2016) 41(4) AltLJ 285
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