The International Monsanto Tribunal: An Interview

Coline Charrasse | 10.13.2016

To view this interview in Spanish, click here.

On October 15th and 16th, the International Monsanto Tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands will take place.

Photo of Marie-Monique Robin (photo by Solène Charrasse)Supported by broad-based members of international civil society and by a large crowdfunding operation, the tribunal will gather five internationally renowned judges that will hear 30 witnesses and experts in order to assess the environmental, health, and human damages attributed to Monsanto. As a symbolic tribunal, the trial will serve as an inspiration and model for people worldwide in future lawsuits against Monsanto or other similar agri-chemical corporations.

We had the opportunity to interview Marie-Monique Robin (pictured right, photo by Solène Charrasse), the author of the book and documentary The World According to Monsanto, who explains to us the foundations and objectives of this particular trial of which she is the patron.

Food First: How did the idea of creating a trial against Monsanto come about?

MMR: It all started two years ago when René Lehnherr and Esther Gerber, two members of the European Civic Forum, met with me to discuss the idea of organizing a tribunal against Monsanto. They suggested that I be the tribunal’s patron and that I put them in touch with different members of international civil society: Olivier De Schutter, the former UN special reporter on the right to food; Vandana Shiva, Alternative Nobel Prize recipient; Hans Herren, the Biovision’s founder; and Corinne Lepage, former French Minister of the Environment, who are currently part of the tribunal’s Organizing Committee.

The idea put in place a new tribunal, which differs from previous mainstream tribunals (and especially from the Russell Tribunals), by gathering real judges and victims and by studying real legal files. We managed to gather 7 judges together, each one representing a different continent. We wanted both female and male judges in order to reflect parity, but also retired judges – because if they were in office, it would be more difficult for them to attend this type of symbolic tribunal. Eventually, only five of them were able to attend the trial since two got sick. They will have to answer six guiding questions, six “terms of reference”, which would enable them to assess whether Monsanto has violated different rights and liberties, such as the right to food or the right to a healthy and sustainable environment, among other things.

Food First: What are the main objectives of the tribunal?

MMR: We would like to use Monsanto as a symbol, as a multinational emblem, which contaminates the environment, ecosystems, makes people sick, or simply kills them. Therefore, our first objective is to assess the damages that were caused by Monsanto through the different products that the organization has created since its founding, that is to say… since the beginning of the 20th century.

mosquito-fumigaciones1-e1428891761306These products are well known: PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl), Agent Orange (used during the Vietnam War), Roundup or other herbicides based on glyphosate, and GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Monsanto’s damages assessment will be grounded on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which were adopted by the Council of the UN Human Rights in 2011. It will be a civil trial, because it is still not possible to bring criminal action against a multinational corporation, which is a real problem.

Today if a peasant claims to be a multinational’s victim because they got sick, the only compensation that they could obtain, if they had the courage to ask for a trial and are able to find lawyers and money to sue Monsanto (which is extremely rare given that people generally can’t afford this), is money. It is not possible to have a criminal proceeding that will condemn and jail the business leaders that have been held responsible for this kind of damage. For the moment, no legal tool makes this possible.

The second objective of the tribunal is to contribute to the further development of international law towards the recognition of a new crime – a new legal figure – which is termed ecocide: the crime against ecosystems and the environment, which isn’t recognized yet. The judges are going to deliver an opinion by questioning, “If the crime of Ecocide existed, could Monsanto be held accountable for this kind of crime?” The fact is that the international penal court prosecutes only four major crimes: the crime against humanity, the crime of genocide, the crime of aggression, and the war crime. So our objective is to add the crime of Ecocide as a 5th crime. This will allow penal actions against multinationals’ leaders that are responsible for ecocide, and to possibly put them in jail. At the moment, a very important planetary movement already exists that supports the recognition of the crime of ecocide, one of the most famous being “End Ecocide on Earth”.

The good news is that the international penal court recently stated that they were now willing to take environmental crimes into account. This proves that consciousness is growing, and why? The 21st century is characterized by very serious challenges: global warming, biodiversity threats – it is referred as the “6th species extinction”, and the pollution that is contaminating the water, soil, and air… and we think that a new legal tool has to be found in order to face these challenges that are jeopardizing humanity’s future. I like taking the example of the Shoah, the Jewish extermination by the Nazis. In order to face this huge tragedy that taints the 20th century, the Nuremberg tribunal’s judges decided to create a new crime, the “crime against humanity”. Today, the same situation is happening given that we are facing a huge planetary challenge; therefore, the law has to evolve so we can stop the destructive machine that is running.

Food First: How will the trial take place exactly; who will be the victims and the witnesses that will be attending?

MMR: The trial will last two days. We thought that Roundup and glyphosate – Roundup’s active substance – should constitute an important part of the trial given it is the world’s top selling herbicide and is directly linked to GMOs. So a whole day will be dedicated to glyphosate and many victims from around the world are going to witness: from Argentina, Sri Lanka, the United States…There will be, for example, Christine Sheppard, a coffee producer in Hawaii, that used to spray huge amounts of glyphosate on her field, who has since been diagnosed with a non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of leukemia. Given that the International Agency for Research on Cancer – which depends on the WHO – recently stated that glyphosate was very likely to be carcinogenic for humans, C. Sheppard decided to sue Monsanto.

p1020034-580x435There will also be many experts and scientists participating. For instance, Damian Verzeñassi, an Argentinian socio-environmental health teacher of the Rosario Medical Sciences Faculty, will be witnessing the health impact of Roundup spraying in Argentina, which is one of the most affected countries, notably because of its transgenic soy production. He is going to inform the tribunal of the congenital malformations, cancers, diabetes, and the respiratory diseases of which many of the people living in villages – surrounded by fields sprayed with Roundup – are victims. There will be 30 witnesses in total.

Food First: What are you expecting of the trial in the future?

MMR: Today it is very difficult for the victims to bring a legal proceeding against Monsanto, especially since they don’t know how to do so, and to whom they should ask for remedies? So we hope that this trial will provide legal tools that will enable victims to conduct trials anywhere they are.

Food First: And what do you think of the recent merger between Bayer and Monsanto? Do you think that it could lead to further obstacles to the future legal procedures?

MMR: I have referred to it as the “rascals’ marriage”. Monsanto is obviously the rascal number one given that it is the world’ largest seed company and it owns patents on GMOs. But at the same time, Bayer sells pesticides, fertilizers, and even drugs that are supposed to cure the peasants that got sick from their products! What is certain is that it will become a mammoth undertaking that will have tremendous lobbying power on the governments and the regulatory agencies, and that the peasants that will be part of this system will be tied up by this huge company, so it is worrisome! But the union between these two companies has not yet been achieved since the European and American competition authorities still have to accept it, and there are very important antitrust laws, especially within the United States. In any case, the concentration in the industry is already well under way. Syngeta, the Swiss multinational, has already been bought by a Chinese group. Dow Chemicals, one of Monsanto’s competitors, merged with Dupont… therefore there is a whole concentration process in the industry, which is typical of globalized capitalism. The only way to get away from this is by promoting organic agriculture and producers everywhere, while paying attention to what we are consuming.