February 22, 2020

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The Amazon fires: a turning point in history?

By Barend ter Haar.

The fires in the Amazon forest have raised extraordinary concern all over the world. But when we focus our attention at the fires, we might miss the revolution in international relations that is happening before our eyes: never before have so many countries put so much pressure on another country to force some of its inhabitants to behave more eco-friendly.

Not so long ago, sovereign countries were free to do whatever they wanted on their territory. This is reflected in the Charter of the United Nations, which states that the United Nations is not authorized “to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state”.

These concepts of sovereignty and of non-interference officially still stand, but they are being challenged by several developments. One of them is the emergence of the idea that individual countries host sites of universal value that should be considered as the heritage of humanity. This idea led to the UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. The Brazilian government referred to that, pointing at the obligation of France to protect and conserve the Notre-Dame in Paris. 

The Notre-Dame is indeed on the World Heritage List, as are a few national parks covering about 2% of the Amazon forest. If they would be lost, that would be a tragic loss for humanity but the health and safety of people outside Paris or the Amazon forest would not be directly affected. 

But if thousands of farmers and companies would continue to burn the Amazon forest at the current pace, that would be a totally different matter. It would not only affect the wellbeing of the local people, but the resulting pollution, acceleration of global warming and loss of biodiversity would affect the whole planet. That is why the international community is pressuring the government of Brazil to take urgent measures. 

Critics argue that global warming and pollution and loss of biodiversity are not caused by the burning of the Amazon forest alone, but are the result of unsustainable human activities all over the world. They are right. But what conclusion should we draw from this? Should we allow Brazilians to destroy their forests because our ancestors have destroyed our forests, or because our companies and citizens are contributing to pollution, climate change and biodiversity loss in other ways? Should we give every country a fair chance to take part in the destruction of the world as we know it? 

Or should we expect every country to do what it can to prevent global environmental disasters? By openly putting pressure on Brazil, many countries have chosen the latter approach. But if they put pressure on Brazil to make its citizens and companies behave more eco-friendly, they should not be surprised when other countries will take a closer look at what their companies and citizens are doing and put a similar type of pressure on them.

In view of the transboundary effects of domestic policies with regard to nature and the environment, it makes sense to disregard the rule that countries should not judge each other’s domestic policies, although it might be the kiss of death for the concept of sovereignty.

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