I am old enough to remember movie newsreel shorts of Dag Hammarskjöld, the United Nations’ second Secretary-General who died in what are now known to be controversial circumstances in a 1961 plane crash in Africa in the 1950s. The United Nations he led was a hopeful, grown-up expression of our planetary ambition to have learned from two wars-to-end-all-wars.
At least, it seemed so from the front seats of Devonport’s decidedly-Edwardian twin cinemas.
The Swedish diplomat, economist, and author was succeeded by Burmese diplomat U Thant and between them, they informed my personal models for leadership; a call for us to think clearly and morally as part of a global stage, above and beyond national interests and power politics.
The corrosive effects of the rights of veto by the Big Five nations were in the future.
Last month, Waiheke’s Professor Klaus Bosselmann addressed the United Nations General Assembly on the concept of national and international obligations to stewardship of the environment.
Professor of Law and Director of the University of Aucklandís New Zealand Centre for Environmental Law, Professor Bosselmann is chairman of the IUCN World Commission on Environmental Law Ethics Specialist Group.
Speaking to the highest body of the United Nations, Professor Bosselmann acknowledged “a disturbing gap between the ideal of Earth trusteeship and the harsh realities of economics, finance and nation-states”.
“We have now arrived at a juncture of human history that makes it absolutely unavoidable to think beyond the paradigm of sovereign nation-states and embrace Earth trusteeship. This has not seriously occurred at UN level, yet the United Nations may be our only hope,” he said.
“Despite the inbuilt, deeply rooted conservatism in the UN system and despite the fact that the idea of transforming the Trusteeship Council has been rejected, the problems are not going to go away. In fact, they will only get worse if states fail to embrace a deeply embedded concept of Earth trusteeship.”
However, sometimes an ideal is closer to reality than we may think, he said.
“First, let me remind you that the legitimacy of the state as a legal institution rests on its ability to care for its citizens.
“To this end, the state has fiduciary obligations and fundamentally acts as a trustee for its citizens and their cultural and natural commons.
“This is clearly evident from legal research into the theory and legitimacy of the modern nation-state. The sovereign state of the 21st century must act as a trustee for the natural environment.”
The General Assembly’s Agenda 2030 set Sustainable Development Goals and should be accompanied by a high-level ethical dialogue that promotes the idea of nation states as trustees for the earth, said Professor Bosselmann .
“The ethics of Earth stewardship are an integral part of the world’s religions and indeed humanity’s cultural heritage, but these ethics have never been more topical than today.
The State as an environmental trustee is already in existing international environmental law and needs to be made more transparent and practically relevant, Professor Bosselmann told the Assembly in New York.
There are signs of a fundamental change in the way the functions of the state are defined, he said.
In the mid 1980s, West Germany defined trusteeship functions for the state that have clearly contributed to Germany’s ambitious environmental policies with respect to climate change, renewable energy and technological innovation, he said.
New Zealand’s 1980s environmental law reform culminated in the Resource Management Act, the world’s first legislation based on the principle of sustainability and requiring all economic activities to meet non-negotiable “environmental bottom lines”.
“Initially, court decisions followed this strong sustainability approach of the Act, but eventually resorted to the more traditional idea of trade-offs between environmental and economic interests,” he said.
Recent legislation to give the Whanganui River legal personality and the associated trusteeship function has is origins the Maori concept of kaitiakitanga and is jointly performed by the Crown and local Maori tribes, he said.
“For the first time, a Western nation is acknowledging legally enforceable trusteeship over natural objects. Clearly, the leadership of states such as Bolivia and Ecuador has helped here.”
As have recent court decisions in India to grant the Ganga and Yamuna rivers the status of ‘juristic persons’, he said. “And three weeks ago, another Indian court did the same with respect to the Himalayan mountain ranges, glaciers, rivers, lakes, air, forests and so on, adding that the rights of these legal entities shall be equivalent to the rights of human beings.
“What is missing, however, is a clear loud voice to remind states of this trend and the trusteeship duties they have agreed on in international agreements,” said Professor Bosselmann.
“We cannot simply wait until 2030 to see whether the Sustainable Development Goals have been achieved. So there is an opportunity for the General Assembly to articulate the importance of Earth trusteeship.” – Liz Waters