As convoys of heavy trucks carry fracking equipment into new oil fields in neighborhoods and wildlands around the world, an alliance of human rights organizations is making plans to put the entire practice of hydraulic fracturing on trial. The court is the Permanent People’s Tribunal, a descendant of the Vietnam War-era International War Crimes Tribunal. The Peoples’ Tribunal is a branch of no government on Earth. It has no power of enforcement. It has no army, no prison, no sheriff.
So what’s the point?
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The point is that it matters to tell the truth in a public place. It matters to affirm universal standards of right and wrong, to clearly say, “There are things that ethical people do not do to one another and to the Earth.”
It matters especially when international and national justice systems, even in purported democracies, are seemingly incapable of protecting people and the commons – air, water, fertile soil, stable climate and all the other necessary conditions for the exercise of basic human rights. It is especially important when transnational corporations are allowed to write the laws that regulate their own actions, making their transgressions effectively “legal,” no matter how outrageous.
Under those circumstances, “People themselves must re-imagine, occupy and appropriate the legal process to actively defend their rights,” according to Tribunal documents. The people themselves, writes Jayan Nayar, lecturer in law at the University of Warwick, must create “a public record of the truth – and of the crime of denial.”
There are two kinds of truths in question when it comes to fracking. The first are factual, having to do with health, geology and chemistry. What are the effects of the explosive extraction of gas and oil on human and ecological thriving? Grassroots organizations around the globe are making a powerful case: Fracking is an essentially harmful practice. It sickens people, deprives them of their livelihoods, degrades or destroys their environments, and in the process contributes to the global warming that threatens the future of life on the planet.
The second, equally important kind of truth is normative, having to do with right and wrong. Given that fracking is harmful in fact, is that harm a violation of human rights? Do governments have an obligation to protect people’s rights to life, liberty and security of person from the damage and danger of radically extractive and wildly profitable industrial practices? The respected judges of the Peoples’ Permanent Tribunal will collect the facts, affirm the moral standards articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and reach a precedent-setting decision.
By this means, the public trial will empower the work of peoples’ movements to push back against the effects of silence and silencing that are endemic to the fracking industry. It will make a place to hear the stories of those who are actively silenced by industry, pressured into silence by neighbors, frightened into silence by possible repercussions, or battered into silence by poverty, social situation, and distance from resources – marginalized and ignored by industry and government alike.
And, most important, the judges will speak for those who have no voices at all – future generations of people, plants, and animals, all the young and hopeful ones. They are the ones who will pay the price of hydraulic fracturing in the currency of their health and prospects, and in the pain of their own bewildered offspring in the sizzling, degraded world the fossil-fuel industry will leave behind.
Given the execrable record the fossil-fuel industry is hiding or distorting the truth about its effects, it is important for an independent and highly respected tribunal to hear the testimony of experts, everyday witnesses and grassroots activists, and make a judgment of the facts about fracking. It is even more important that they publicly affirm the standards of human decency that are encoded in the human conscience and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Business-as-usual has a terrible power. People must stand up to say: “It’s wrong to wreck communities and ecosystems. It’s wrong to poison drinking water. It’s wrong to create earthquakes or dash the hopes of small children.” Otherwise, these consequences become simply “stuff that happens,” an undeniable cost of doing business. Silence normalizes iniquity; silence normalizes the violation of human rights. The violation becomes, in the popular expression, “the new normal.” The result is a sliding baseline of morality as people expect less and less of their corporations and governments, and hold them less and less to account.
A public declaration of conscience, however, also has remarkable power. It matters to speak clearly and authoritatively about standards of human decency. Contemporary philosopher Charles Taylor wrote that speaking clearly “has a moral point, not just in correcting what may be wrong views but also in making the force of an ideal that people are already living by more palpable, more vivid for them; and by making it more vivid, empowering them to live up to it in a fuller and more integral fashion.”
Indeed, history provides many examples of times when change rode the back of a rising wave of public affirmation of basic moral principles. Consider, for example, the global results of the widespread affirmation of this principle: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . .” From a public trial of fracking, one might look for change that comes from a ringing affirmation of Article 8 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.” With the weight of an authoritative and impartial judicial opinion on their side, people can more effectively call governments to their rightful task of protecting people from corporations that would heedlessly harm them.