As delivered by Bjørn Berge, Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe
Members and Observers of the Committee on the Protection of the Environment through Criminal Law,
Ladies and gentlemen,
In 2023, several European countries experienced their warmest January day ever recorded –
In what we now know was the most extreme winter heatwave in our continent’s modern history.
The trend of rising temperatures threatens irreversible changes to our way of life –
Having a severe impact on our forests, our wildlife and diversity –
Not to mention our ecosystem –
All of this has implications for our human rights.
But there is another aspect to the environmental debate that is crying out for more attention, an issue that this Committee will focus on, and one that compounds the climate crisis.
And that is environmental crime.
Sometimes committed for profit – but with destructive consequences – and very often across borders –
These offences harm the air that we breathe, the water we drink, and the land on which we depend.
They damage our health and well-being, as well as the security of our food supply.
And their impact often echoes down the generations.
Environmental crime must be stopped –
And that requires determined, multilateral action.
The Council of Europe is well placed to lead these efforts.
We already have experience, expertise and jurisprudence in this area.
Judgments from the European Court of Human Rights have established violations of people’s human rights because of harm done to the environment –
Through industrial pollution and dangerous industrial activities, for example.
Just last year, all of our 46 member states agreed upon a recommendation on human rights and the protection of the environment –
Urging them to respect the “general principles of international environmental law” –
Such as the no harm principle, the principle of prevention and the principles of precaution and the polluter pays –
And to take measures to protect the rights of those who are most vulnerable to environmental harm –
Or at particular risk from it.
It urged them to “reflect on the nature, content and implications of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment” –
And of course we have specific and very relevant conventions –
Relevant because some of them deal directly with environmental issues –
Such as our Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats –
Our Landscape Convention –
But relevant – and I will also say pertinent – because they show the range of our experience in delivering effective criminal law treaties that address cross-border issues.
On everything from cybercrime –
To the protection of children against sexual abuse –
To preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence –
We have developed powerful and effective tools –
Many of which are made here in Europe, but open for accessions in the wider world.
So, given the urgency of the environmental challenge –
And building on our previous version –
I have no doubt that we can produce and adopt a world-leading convention on protecting the environment through criminal law, and in record time.
It is certainly not for me to pre-empt the specific provisions that this Committee will decide.
But I believe it will be important to provide a clear and precise list of environmental offences that national authorities can tackle effectively, and there should be preventive measures to stop these crimes.
Whether that means training law enforcement officials, better equipping other state authorities, or putting in place extensive education and awareness-raising programmes on environmental issues.
And there should be punishment that not only seeks justice in itself, but also has a dissuasive effect which, in turn, also makes these crimes less likely.
This combination of prevention, protection and prosecution is vital. This we have learned by experience.
But there is another key angle to consider too –
Criminal law allows the return of profits from crime.
In this case, that means that public administrations stand to gain – or regain – very large sums of money lost through the damage caused by environmental crime.
Fines, taxes and other penalties –
And effective, international asset recovery mechanisms provide the means to do this.
I hope that these too will be part of your considerations.
After all, environmental crime in not only lucrative –
It is booming.
In recent years, INTERPOL and the United Nations Environment Programme have estimated that environmental crime has been growing at 2-3 times the rate of the global economy.
In 2016, they assessed that the annual global loss of resources caused by environmental crime was somewhere between 100 and 250 billion US dollars, a number that has only continued to grow –
And the United Nations (UN) has also estimated that the proceeds from environmental offences are of the same kind of scale as other financial crimes.
These are enormous sums of money –
And they include losses to European taxpayers and authorities.
Overall, however, the most important win from a new convention would be stronger protection for the environment on which our citizens depend for their way of life and well-being.
I am convinced you will be able to flesh out a treaty on which all our governments can agree.
In this, you will also benefit from the knowledge and insights of a range of other parties.
These include the United Nations Environment Programme, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and the European Commission –
All of which will present here today –
As well as other international partners –
And of course representatives from non-governmental organisations.
During Ireland’s quite recent presidency of the Committee of Ministers, its then Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, spoke about the Council of Europe as being the “conscience of Europe”.
Certainly, if we were to do nothing in the face of this challenge –
And at this moment in time
It would be an irremovable stain on that conscience.
This would be unacceptable, so I am deeply grateful to you for your commitment.
We have a common goal and I know that, together, we will achieve it.
Thank you for your attention.