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Valérie Cabanes: “It is urgent to become aware of the interdependence of all living organisms”

Interview of Valérie Cabanes, jurist ininternational law



A legal expert on international law and an ecologist, Valérie Cabanes pleads for the inclusion in international penal law of the crime of ecocide, and for the recognition of natural elements as legal personalities. Already introduced and implemented in several countries in the world, this concept has long been rejected in France, although now the idea is making real progress in gaining acceptance.



What does acknowledge the rights of nature mean?

At present, the status of legal personality has only been accorded to human beings: legal entities like companies and associations are also attributed such status. This gives them the capacity to exercise their rights. Our aim is to grant nature this same capacity.

These rights are not associated with obligations, since they would be meaningless. These rights are linked to the role played by a species or an ecosystem in maintaining life on Earth. The aim is to acknowledge the right of a natural element to exist, regenerate, fulfil itself and persist and perpetuate through time.

Acknowledging the importance of an ecosystem and enforcing its rights also often entails recognising the bio-cultural rights of the populations who live in interdependence with this ecosystem. Recognising the rights of nature sometimes requires national legislation, sometimes local legislation, and sometimes by courts of law, opening up perspectives for the decisions made by judges.

Ecuador is the first country to have included this notion in its constitution, in 2008. Since then, it has made progress everywhere around the world.


Indeed, rivers and lakes have already been given the status of legal personality in New Zealand, Bangladesh and North America. What has it changed? What are the possible barriers to its implementation?


The status of legal personality allows acting upstream, before damage occurs, and not only by

claiming compensation for damage already endured, once the disaster has occurred. In Ecuador, thirty different lawsuits have been taken out, twenty-five of which have been won. The very first of them concerned the defence of a river threatened by the construction of a road. The judge stopped the project since he deemed the river had the right to pursue its natural course. In another lawsuit, a mangrove swamp with trees exceeding 60 metres in height was preserved: the judge banned the installation of a shrimp farm there. He declared there was a risk of chemical pollution and contamination of the mangrove swamp by antibiotics, and recalled the right of this highly specific ecosystem to remain in good health. In another case, a Chinese boat was seized in the waters of the marine reserve of the Galapagos. Aboard, there were 6,200 sharks, killed to sever their fins. The judge had the boat destroyed and gave prison sentences ranging from 1 to 4 years.

I see this movement to recognise the rights of nature gain increasing impetus. It’s a genuine revolution. The barriers to its implementation are mostly conceptual.


In Europe, this judicial lever has still to make an impact. Why do you think this is the case? Who is against it?

Its critics argue that the right of nature contradicts two fundamental principles: the freedom of enterprise and private property. The project of those campaigning in favour of rights for nature does not aim to call these principles into question, which, it should be remembered, are already subject to limitation when they jeopardise the higher interests of the community. Others consider that what is urgent is to ensure the rules that already exist are enforced. True, but this isn’t incompatible with the possibility of completing what already exists.

Generally, the law in Europe is highly anthropocentric and can only be invoked when there are human victims. It is urgent for mindsets to change and that we become aware of the interdependence of all living organisms.

France has taken the lead in this area. The Erika trial opened the way: the judge sentenced Total to pay a fine of €200 million for the damage done to the economy and tourism, accompanied with a fine for ecological prejudice of €13 million. This second fine acknowledged the intrinsic value of nature, independently of the consequences for the human population. However, it remains minimal and it not very dissuasive. Recognising the crime of “ecocide” and its formal passing into law, would allow penal sanctions against damage and destruction done to vital ecosystems. Its application must also be accompanied by the possibility of implementing conservatory measures to protect ecosystems before they are destroyed. That is why it is necessary to recognise a legal status for nature.

Regarding this, the Call of the Rhone* is a fine initiative that brings together two countries to achieve the same objective. It should be repeated at the international scale for rivers, territorial waters and the oceans.

In practice, who could render justice for nature? What jurisdiction?

Regarding the most serious acts, one could imagine an amendment of the Rome Statute, the founding text of the International Criminal Court, in order to recognise the crime of ecocide. Ecocide can be defined as the destruction of an ecosystem, a species, and natural cycles. Its seriousness can be assessed by the impact on the habitability of the planet, and on its safety. The approval of this amendment would make the International Criminal Court competent to judge crimes of ecocide, by freeing it of national sovereignty.

La recognition of ecocide comes in addition to recognising the rights of nature. A Universal Declaration of the Rights of Nature has been under study for more than 10 years, but they can be recognised by each government. They could then be claimed before national courts, like in Ecuador.

At a time when an exceptional health crisis is reminding us of our links with nature and mass community movements for the climate, don’t you think that the moment has arrived for the universal recognition of the rights of nature?

The crisis has highlighted the interdependence of ecosystems: human health and that of ecosystems are closely linked. This crisis will force us to go beyond our lack of empathy with our fellow humans and to other living systems. We have to expand the rules of life together to non-humans. We’ll get there. The lockdown has brought calm and serenity and shown that we are not condemned to live with noise and fury, that we can live just as well with silence and birdsong.


*initiative driven by the association ID-eau  aimed at French and Swiss citizens.


Valérie Cabanes is a legal expert in international law specialised in human and humanitarian rights. She is heavily involved in defending the rights of indigenous peoples and the recognition of the rights of nature, and by virtue of this she advises the United Nations “Harmony with Nature” initiative. In France, she has co-founded the NGO “It’s the business of all of us” which works in favour of climatic justice.

Photo : © Jerome Panconi

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