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Bringing the Seeds of Justice to Monsanto

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Bringing the Seeds of Justice to Monsanto

Photo: Photo Getty images/AFP

As the world looks to the COP 21 to save the climate, and the future of life on this planet, the damage caused by industrial agriculture is being ignored. Yet it contributes, according to various UN sources, at least 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The cause: the expansion of monocultures and intensive farming, deforestation, depleted soil and the massive use of pesticides and petrochemical fertilizers. The figure rises to around 50 percent if we look at the entire industrial food system, including processing, transportation and waste of food, according to a report by the NGO Grain.

Who best symbolizes this model, that is also polluting the water, soil and air, and accelerating the extinction of biodiversity, and promoting what the World Health Organization (WHO) calls the "epidemic of preventable chronic diseases" (cancer, Alzheimer's, Parkinson’s), while threatening food sovereignty by patenting seeds and the privatization of life? 

The Monsanto Tribunal Foundation says it’s Monsanto.

Established in The Hague, Netherlands, with the support of citizen movements such as La Via Campesina, numerous NGOs and international personalities (including Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva, already the bane of Saint Louis multinational’s existence, and Australian Andre Leu, president of IFOAM), the Tribunal intends to "judge the crimes charged to the American multinational in the environmental and health field and contribute to the recognition of the crime of ecocide in international law.”

In addition to Monsanto, the Tribunal will take on "all multinational companies which are driven by the profit motive and thereby threaten human health and safety of the planet.”

No small feat.

Officially launched this December 3, the initiative "is quite unique and unprecedented," says the organizer, Marie-Monique Robin, director and writer of the 2008 film and book, ‘The World According to Monsanto.” The Monsanto Tribunal has nothing to do, said Robin, with the Russell-Sartre Tribunal, established in 1966 to try those responsible for war crimes in Vietnam, or with the International Tribunal for the Rights of Nature, which takes place in Paris this Friday and Saturday on the sidelines of the COP 21. Those tribunals are good teaching tools, Robin said. “The Monsanto Tribunal is not a tribunal of opinion, but a real court with real judges and lawyers in robes, who will examine real charges using the real tools of international law," Robin said, although the court will not have “institutional recognition.”

Judges from five continents

The Monsanto Tribunal will follow the "Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights," approved in 2011 by the United Nations Human Rights Commission. "This text is now the most widely accepted reference defining the responsibilities of businesses with regard, for example, to the right to health, or the right to a healthy environment," said Belgian Olivier de Schutter, former Special UN Rapporteur for the right to food, and professor of international law at the Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium). He will convene the Tribunal, along with lawyer and former French MEP Corinne Lepage, as well as lawyers and judges from all five continents.

The court, which has scheduled a meeting in The Hague from October 12-16, 2016, will hear from up to 100 potential plaintiffs from the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa. “Over the coming year, the Monsanto Tribunal will collect testimony and gather important information,” said de Schutter, whose students will be involved in the process. “It is too early to know which witnesses or victims will actually appear before the Tribunal. The lawyers for the victims will decide."

The Monsanto Tribunal will follow judicial rules "whenever possible," de Schutter said, including the rules of civil procedure. The Monsanto will be invited to make submissions. "It would be unfortunate if Monsanto chooses to remain silent," de Schutter said.

When contacted by Libération, Monsanto produced a statement saying that the "accusations are based on misconceptions that are inaccurate and distorted, and in no way reflect reality." The statement noted that in France, Monsanto has 600 employees and each year 200,000-300,000 farmers take advantage of its "highly valued solutions."

"Safety is a priority for Monsanto," said the company, which claims to use "a transparent process," and that "many scientific studies" back up its products. Monsanto says it is "ready to answer all questions." But will Monsanto show up to defend itself at the Tribunal? The company won’t say.

Isn’t it absurd and disturbing to have to create a tribunal to address the insufficiencies of the justice system?

"It would be wrong to say that nothing has been done so far," admits de Schutter. He cited the case of the inhabitants of Nitro, West Virginia, where Monsanto manufactured Agent Orange. In 2013, Monsanto obtained a settlement for damages from dioxin pollution.

Highly toxic

Another example is the case filed in September against Monsanto in Los Angeles and New York by farm workers who developed bone cancers or leukemia after handling Roundup, Monsanto’s widely-used herbicide. There’s also the case of the grain farmer from Charentais, Paul Francis, who was poisoned by Lasso, a Monsanto herbicide that has since been banned. In 2012, Francis was finally compensated by Monsanto.

"This was a world first,” Robin said. “Never had a farmer dared to attack the St. Louis firm. And for good reason. In my book, “Our Daily Poison” (2010), I recounted Paul’s ordeal. It's incredible and it's not over." After losing at the trial level and on appeal, Monsanto appealed to the Supreme Court, after the Court of Appeals of Lyon found that "Monsanto was well aware of what was in its product."

"Ultimately, there can only be civil penalties, because, for the time being, there is no legal tool that allows for the  criminal prosecution of a company or its executives who are responsible for crimes against human health or integrity of the environment,” said Robin, who says that international criminal law needs to be reformed to recognize of the crime of ecocide.

"If ecocide were to be recognized as a crime, Monsanto could not pollute the environment with impunity for more than a century, and do everything to keep selling highly toxic products that cause illness and the deaths of thousands of people,” Robin said. "Look at what’s happening with glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, the most widely used herbicide in the world, used with the company’s GMOs. Everything indicates that we are facing a huge health scandal, well above that of asbestos. Now, as it did with PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), persistent organic pollutants and dioxin, Monsanto continues to claim that it Roundup is safe, when the company knows this is false!"

Foundation will use crowdfunding

Hans Herren, from Switzerland, president of the Washington D.C.-based Millennium Institute, says that Monsanto is "by far one of the worst" when it comes to influencing public authorities with "false facts" on the safety of its products. Although other agrochemical companies such as Syngenta, Bayer or BASF are not far behind, Herren said.

"Things are moving forward. But too slowly and too late,” said de Schutter. “Above all, at the political level, they’re not getting the message that justice isn’t being served." Why is that? "Powerful economic interests are involved, and these companies are very well equipped to protect themselves in court,” de Schutter said. “In addition, the court system is an obstacle course for the victims, who are reluctant to invest time and money in litigation when the outcome is certain. And when a company like Monsanto is sued, it will settle a case, to avoid setting a precedent that doesn’t serve its interests."

Monsanto continues to make money from the products that victims have challenged in court. This does not encourage the company to change its practices. "As long as it’s more more profitable for shareholders to take risks to the community, even when they have to compensate victims from time to time when lawsuits are incurred, these practices persist,” said de Schutter. “These legal actions are not a substitute for much stronger government intervention."

Who will finance this Monsanto Tribunal, which will cost an estimated € 1 million? On Thursday, the Tribunal founders called on "All citizens of the world" to participate in “the largest crowdfunding platform ever to date."

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