Common heritage

Last Friday I attended Fondazzjoni IDEAT's debate on climate change. It was well presented, insightful and I left the event more informed on the subject than I was before. These are all pluses and a feather in IDEAT's cap. In this debate Malta's initiative on the environment and climate change in international fora were both remembered and praised, however the important question was asked: have we lost momentum? Arvid Pardo and Professor David Attard have become somewhat renowned amongst environmentalists and internationalists for their praise-worthy efforts at a UN level in ensuring (or at least trying to) that the environment (or aspects of it such as the sea bed) is treated as a 'common heritage of mankind' and not as a 'first-come, first-exploit' type of thing. This goes to show that tiny Malta can do a world of good and is not as insignificant as some project it to be.

However, as much as we boast of our endeavors, one must question and assess whether we practice what we preach right here at home. Before going to the debate I took with me two articles of law contained in the Environment Protection Act (Chapter 435). These are the following:

Article 3. It shall be the duty of everyone together with the government to protect the environment and to assist in taking of preventive and remedial measures to protect the environment and manage natural resources in a sustainable manner.

Try to let this provision of the law seep in for a moment. We all have a duty to protect our environment. It seems all to simple. In fact it is not truly so.

Article 5. The provisions of articles 3 and 4 shall not be directly enforceable in any court, but the principles therein contained are this notwithstanding fundamental to the Government of the State and those principles shall be employed in the interpretation of the other provisions of this Act or of any other law relating to matters governed by this Act.

Can you spot the difference? Whereas I have a duty to protect my environment it seems that I cannot enforce this duty in a Court of law if needs be.

If the environment is our common heritage and if we have a duty to protect it than why shouldn't we be able to act as its guardian by taking offenders (be they public authorities, land speculators, industrialists, corporations, or private citizens) to Court? Why is it that the government alone is entitled to act as our environment's guardian? Excuse me for being political in a treatise concerning the environment but I must say that government is doing a pretty horrid job. MEPA's role in environmental protection leaves much to be desired.

Citizens should be given the right to truly enjoy and protect their environment by means of judicial empowerment, if not directly, through environmental organisations which speak on their behalf by means of a class action. It makes no sense to dismiss a judicial action on the basis that the applicant has no personal and juridical interest in it. Harm to the environment, wherever it is caused and whomever causes it, is a harm caused to everybody and not only to persons in the immediate vicinity. Sometimes I wonder if persons in the immediate vicinity themselves have any say let alone judicial empowerment.

Allowing citizens and green-NGO's to attend MEPA hearings is a start but it is definitely not enough. No government should ever fear empowering citizens by strengthening their legal rights.

[Unfortunately none of the speakers in the panel had a legal background and thus the necessary expertise to answer this question].

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