Green Court

I JUST returned from Jakarta, having attended the Roundtable Meeting for Asean Chief Justices and Senior Judiciary on Environmental Law and Enforcement, organised by the Asian Development Bank and the Indonesian Supreme Court. The purpose of the roundtable is to enable Asean countries to share their experiences and innovative thinking in dealing with environmental cases. One of the issues discussed was the illegal trade in wildlife.

Although Asean has ten member countries, we share common challenges. These include corruption, lack of enforcement and political will, weak laws and inadequate resources (human and financial). Wildlife trade has never been high on a government’s agenda and this is not unique to Asean countries. Many wildlife seizures seldom involve the arrest of the mastermind, and the cases seldom get to court. And when a case does get to court, low fines and penalties are imposed and the illegal trade continues.

One of the innovative ideas heard was the establishment of a Green Court or Green Bench in the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia, focused specifically on hearing environmental cases, and judges are trained in environmental issues and laws, including the understanding of environmental concepts.

There are many advantages to having a Green Court. For one, you have a judge who understands the impact of say, illegal logging on the environment, and recognises that environmental crime is a serious one. Second, with certified green judges presiding over cases, the probability of an appropriate sentence being meted out will be higher than at present. Finally, there have been innovative ways of penalising the offender such as in the Philippines and Thailand, where the penalty imposed may not be imprisonment but rather a fine or community service which can include rehabilitating the area that has been destroyed. This would reduce the burden on the government or individual plaintiff of having to use their own resources to repair the damage done by the offender.

All this of course sounds good, but it all boils down to political will. The government needs to take the initiative to start exploring this idea and making it a reality soon. As more and more precious forested areas are destroyed by illegal logging and plundered by illegal wildlife hunters on a massive scale, as fish stocks are threatened by overfishing and pollution of our rivers and air due to development, the urgency of establishing a Green Court is high.

It was heartening to note that the Malaysian delegation to the roundtable was receptive to the idea, and this was further boosted a few weeks ago by the prime minister’s statement at a United Nations Environment Programme meeting that a Green Court is necessary for Malaysia. The environment cannot wait and if the judiciary can play a bigger role in halting the degradation of our environment, I am sure every one of us will be grateful to the chief justice for taking the bold step of ensuring the survival of our environment. Happy New Year to all!

Azrina Abdullah is conducting research on the links between indigenous groups and wildlife trade. She was regional director of Traffic, an NGO which monitors the global wildlife trade. Comments: