|Coloured powder symbolising glyphosate-containing|
herbicide is thrown during a May 2015 protest against
Monsanto in Mexico City. Photo: Stringer/Mexico/Reuter
by John Vidal, The Guardian, 13 October 2016
US agri-business declines to attend peoples’ tribunal at which toxicologists and scientists will argue its activities have harmed human health and environment
International judges will take evidence from 30 witnesses and “victims” of US agri-business Monsanto in an attempt by hundreds of grassroots groups to hold the company accountable for what they allege are human rights violations, crimes against humanity, and “ecocide”, or widespread environmental damage.
High-profile witnesses, including former UN special rapporteur on the right to food Olivier De Schutter, will give evidence alongside Argentine doctors, Mexican beekeepers and toxicologists and scientists from 15 countries. The five judges will deliver what is expected to be a lengthy advisory legal opinion.
The three-day peoples’ tribunal, which will be held in The Hague this weekend, will adopt the format of the UN’s international court of justice but will have no standing in law.
Organisers have described the hearing as a “moral trial” and “a test of international law”.
“It aims to assess the allegations of harm made against Monsanto as well as the human health and environmental damages caused by the company throughout its history,” said a spokeswoman in London.
The agro-chemical company, which is the subject of a £51bn takeover by German conglomerate Bayer, has declined to take part, or to defend its history at the tribunal.
The company, which manufactured hundreds of thousands of tonnes of Agent Orange for use as a chemical weapon in the Vietnam war, is the world’s biggest genetically modified seed corporation. Monsanto developed toxic polychlorinated biphenyls and also makes glyphosate, the primary ingredient in Roundup, a widely used but controversial herbicide.
The firm’s accusers in The Hague will hold it and other major chemical companies primarily responsible for developing an unsustainable system of farming.
“Monsanto promotes an agro-industrial model that contributes at least one-third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions; it is also largely responsible for the depletion of soil and water resources, species extinction and declining biodiversity, and the displacement of millions of small farmers worldwide. This is a model that threatens peoples’ food sovereignty by patenting seeds and privatising life”, said the spokeswoman.
“The tribunal will give a legal opinion on the environmental and health damage alleged to have been caused by the multinational. It will also give people all over the world a well-documented legal file to be used in future lawsuits against Monsanto and similar chemical companies.”
In an open letter, signed by three Monsanto directors, the company said it would not attend the tribunal because it was “staged and supported by” organic food organisations.
“We welcome a genuine, constructive conversation with diverse ideas and perspectives about food and agriculture production. [But] this is not a real dialogue. It is a staged event, a mock trial where anti-agriculture technology and anti-Monsanto critics play organisers, judge and jury, and where the outcome is pre-determined,” wrote Martha Burmaster, Monsanto’s director of human rights.
“As this is a stunt staged and supported by the International Foundation of Organic Agriculture Movements – an umbrella organisation of organic agriculture organisations, and their associates such as Navdanya and others who are fundamentally opposed to modern agriculture – we will not participate.”
The Monsanto statement added: “We help farmers mitigate and adapt to climate change. Our products and services help farmers to use data science to grow food in a more sustainable and carbon-neutral way. We have made commitments and taken actions to enhance honey-bee health; create a healthier ecosystem for monarch butterflies; and help rural communities preserve their forest-farm ecosystem, prevent illegal deforestation and protect local species.
“We believe in the coexistence of all types of farming practices, and in farmers’ individual freedom to choose the production method that makes most sense for their goals – be that growing crops using conventional methods, or with genetically-modified seeds and other modern techniques, or by following organic practices”.
Organisers insisted the tribunal was not a kangaroo court or a stunt and said it was by no means certain the case against the corporation would be proved.
“Other similar tribunals have found both for and against corporations,” said Damien Short, director of the Human Rights Consortium at London University. “This is a test of international law. It has moral force and the tribunal’s decision will be evidence-based. Peoples’ tribunals are testing the law.”
Lucy Rees, speaking on behalf of End Ecocide on Earth, added: “Under existing [international] law, it is impossible to bring criminal charges against a company like Monsanto or its management, for possible crimes against human health and the integrity of the environment.”
The Indian author Vandana Shiva, a tribunal organiser who has clashed with Monsanto many times, said the company is seen as one of the most dangerous on the planet.
“It has earned this reputation through a history of producing products toxic to humans and the environment. Life, society and democracy are under threat. We refuse to allow this future to unfold.”
The tribunal, expected to cost €500,000 (£445,000), has so far raised €364,000 through crowdfunding. It is supported by more than 500 groups and individuals, including La Via Campesina and Friends of the Earth Europe.
Belgian law professor De Schutter, who will give evidence, said: “The tribunal will provide a forum for the victims of Monsanto. Secondly, it shall help develop international law. Thirdly, we are now in a stage in which very important choices should be made as to how agricultural production should develop. Shall we move to larger monocultures that rely on fossil energy, pesticides and genetically modified food, or shall we move towards diversified farming systems that respect the ecosystems and can be highly productive as they work with nature rather than against nature?”
Other critics, including British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, former German minister of agriculture Renate Künast, Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiserand French researcher Gilles-Éric Séralini, will give evidence at a parallel “people’s assembly” of international social groups.
“We will also be talking about their lobbying tactics, the political strategies, how they influence the political decisions, and how that links them to the other agrochemical giants: Bayer, BASF, DowDuPont, Syngenta,” said Nina Holland,Corporate Europe Observatory director and a speaker in the peoples’ assembly.
In a possible conciliatory move, Monsanto – which has always denied human rights abuses and claimed to be a force for environmental good – invited its critics to pose questions.
“We know we can always do more,” said the firm. “We understand that people have different points of view on these topics, and it’s important that they are able to express and share them. For our part, we remain committed to our human rights policy and practices, transparency, dialogue and collaboration, and welcome anyone who wants to learn more about Monsanto to ask us a question at discover.monsanto.com.”