Retour ​​​​​​​ 29th Lisbon Forum "Human Rights, Environment and Economic Crimes: Youth at the forefront"

"Remarks by Bjørn Berge, Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe"



Distinguished guests,

Ladies and gentlemen,


For almost thirty years now, the Lisbon Forum of the North-South Centre has provided something truly unique.

It has brought together governments and parliamentarians, local and regional authorities, and civil society –

To address issues of deep and global importance –

And with a particular focus on the Southern Mediterranean region.

This Forum is the first since the launch of the Council of Europe’s new strategy, strengthening the links between the North-South Centre’s work and our Neighbourhood Policy in particular the South Programme.

Its purpose is to ensure that we are even more effective –

And given the scale of the challenges we face today, this could not be more important or timely.

The theme of this conference makes that point.

Our environment is under extreme pressure.

We face a triple planetary crisis of pollution, the loss of biodiversity, and the terrible advance of climate change, caused by human activity.

The evidence is all around us.

This September was the hottest on record.

So too was August.

And July was not only the hottest July, but the hottest month ever.

In fact, not only was this summer the warmest of all time –

With heatwaves believed to have caused tens of thousands of deaths in the Southern Mediterranean –

But 2023 is on course to be the hottest year in history.

Southern and poorer regions are more exposed to the impact of climate change –

And so too are the younger generations who will suffer its impact harder and longer than their parents and grandparents.

So, it is little surprise that many opinion polls have found that concern for the planet is greater among young people –

And that so many of them are on the streets urging action now.

This is good.

And I believe that the Lisbon Forum is right to put these issues centre stage.

Certainly, action on the environment is also a top priority for the Council of Europe.

In May, European leaders met in Reykjavík for our Summit of Heads of State and Government.

There, they issued a joint Declaration on the importance of urgent, co-ordinated action –

Stating that human rights and the environment are intertwined –

And confirming that a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is essential to the full enjoyment of those rights.

We have been given our marching orders.

So, now we need to move forward.

And we can build on a track record of action on environmental issues.

The European Court of Human Rights, based on the European Convention on Human Rights, has ruled on more than 300 environment-related cases so far –

Some of which have found violations of individuals’ rights –

Compelling governments to act.

Further cases are pending –

Including Duarte Agostinho and Others v. Portugal and 32 other Council of Europe member states –

On which the Court held a very interesting Grand Chamber hearing last month.

The applicants who have brought this case, are all young people who claim that their governments have failed to meet their obligations under the terms of the Paris Agreement on climate change –

And that the impact on their lives is so severe that it will violate the terms of the European Convention on Human Rights.

These young peoples’ case has understandably attracted a lot of media interest –

And we now await its outcome with interest.

By the way, our European Social Charter also includes provisions that protect against environmental harm.

The right to the protection of health, for example –

And the European Committee of Social Rights, which regularly hears social rights cases, has been very clear that states should remove causes of ill health that come from environmental harms such as pollution.

Drawing on the work of our Court and other parts of our Organisation, from these rights, over the years, we have also developed specific instruments including the Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats –

Our Landscape Convention –

And the EUR-OPA Major Hazards Agreement.

On top of this, we have issued a manual on human rights and environment –

And last year we adopted a Recommendation to all our member states, encouraging governments to recognise the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment in their national legal systems –

And take the measures that give this real effect.

So, a lot has been done.

But we need to keep going.

Right now, we are at work on a feasibility study for a new instrument on human rights and the environment.

This process is bringing together European governments, civil society and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights –

To ensure that any new instrument draws on the broadest possible experience and expertise –

And helps ensure that our human rights are better protected against environmental harms than ever before.

Furthermore, we are also preparing a new Convention on the Protection of the Environment through Criminal Law.

Environmental crimes, often fuelled by corruption and organised crime, damage public health along with the nature we love.

Research suggests that environmental crime generates up to 235 billion dollars in illegal profits every year.

This includes illegal waste trafficking –

Often including hazardous waste, such as cadmium and lead, and arsenic and asbestos.

And what happens?

It is trafficked to poorer countries –

Or simply dumped locally, on land, or at sea –

Where they will pose a grave threat to human and animal life and incur clean up costs that can be extremely high.

The illegal wildlife trade, meanwhile, endangers species and biodiversity and is worth millions of dollars.

While illegal mining siphons off gold and diamonds – among other things – into the black market –

But it is illegal forestry that counts for the highest criminal revenues of all –

Stripping land of its natural resources, at up to 152 billion dollars a year in value. And the World Bank has estimated that it involves a tax revenue loss of up to 9 billion dollars from illegal logging alone.

Money that could otherwise have been spent on education, health care, and housing, for example, often in countries that desperately need them –

And where these could give young people the start in life that they need.

So, environmental crime does deep damage to the natural world, while filling the pockets of criminals, and depriving the public of resources that should be theirs.

It is clear that we must all do what we can to stop all this.

In the Council of Europe we have some tools that can be helpful.

For example, our expert group, GRECO – or Group of States against Corruption – is designed to tackle all kinds of corrupt practice, including crimes involving the environment.

But, given the scale of the problem, probably more specific tools are needed.

Again, with the input of governments, civil society and the European Union and the United Nations –


Hopefully we will be able to negotiate a new international treaty, that will make a meaningful contribution to the bigger effort required to stop environmental crime.


Lastly, I think that it is important to say that the responsibility to act is shared by every generation –

But, as our Forum theme states, youth should be at the forefront.

We need the energy, perspective and drive that young people often bring to our world.

We know that from experience, as for over 50 years now, we have worked closely with young people.

And the North-South Centre has done inspiring work training young people from Europe, the Southern Mediterranean and Africa –

Empowering them –

And helping them establish connections between one another and with local, national and international decision-makers.

More than 8000 young people have been trained in democratic participation, global education, and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals –

And today I want to pay tribute to the University of Youth and Development in Spain –

The Mediterranean University of Youth and Global Citizenship in Tunisia –

And the African University of Youth and Global Citizenship in Cape Verde and Kenya –

All of which have been deeply involved.

Thank you for all that you have done.

I hope the recommendations and conclusions from this Lisbon Forum will help us go further and that the starting theme of the Rule of Law Youth Network will be “young people in the fight against economic crime linked to the environment”.

Dear friends,

Protecting the environment is one of the defining challenges of our times –

And ending environmental crime, and becoming much better at protecting our environment are essential to meeting this challenge.

Achieving this will involve everyone –

Every individual.

Every community.

Every industry.

Every association

Every government and every international organisation.

The North-South Centre has a unique role in helping build bridges that connect the Southern Mediterranean region and sub-saharan Africa and beyond –

With a particular focus on young people.

So, we have a chance here to achieve something quite unique.

To share the wisdom, methods and determination that can help all of us to tackle environmental crime and adopt broader measures that address the environment and climate change.

So, finally I want to thank the Portuguese authorities for hosting the North South Centre –

And the Ismaili Centre for hosting this Forum –

And express my gratitude to every country, organisation and individual that has invested their time, resources and faith in this approach.


Thank you for your attention.

Lisbon 16 October 2023
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