Ethiopia’s New Civil Society Law

By Dina Townsend

A few weeks ago, the Ethiopian Parliament adopted a new law governing civil society organisations (CSOs). It is hard to overstate what an important and remarkable step this is for the civil society sector, their beneficiaries and funders. It is an important step because, up until now, Ethiopian law has radically constrained and frustrated the work and political spaces of CSOs. It is a remarkable step because the adoption of a new CSO law was unforeseeable less than a year ago. In this blog post, we briefly outline some of the key features of the new law and the important ways in which this law differs from the old regulatory system.

A wave of protests in 2017, followed by the surprise resignation of the then Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, in February 2018 opened the way to what many see as a new political era in Ethiopia’s history. The new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, has committed to a more democratic, transparent and accountable government and has taken some steps towards achieving this goal.

One of the first things the new Prime Minister committed to do was repeal and revise a series of repressive laws, some of which had been in force for nearly a decade. Among these was the Charities and Societies Proclamation of 2009. The 2009 Proclamation states that its purpose is to ensure the right to freedom of association, but in truth, the law largely consisted of different regulatory tactics to restrict and control the activities and funding of CSOs and to significantly increase state oversight of those operations.

Over the course of the past few months, a drafting committee was convened to revise the regulatory framework for CSOs. This committee included a number of CSO representatives. After various drafts as well as public consultations, the revised law was finalized and finally adopted by Parliament. Although the new law is awaiting publication and is not yet in force, it will soon replace the 2009 Proclamation and usher in a new era for civil society in Ethiopia.

In this blog post, we consider some of the key changes that will be introduced by the new 2018 Proclamation. We start with a brief overview of the current law before turning to a discussion of some of the important features of the new legislation.

The 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation

Ignoring the rights and freedoms embodied in its Constitution, Ethiopia has deliberately and effectively restricted the political space for CSOs through legal measures that strictly regulate the funding, management and scope of work of these organisations. A key component of this has been the 2009 Proclamation.

The 2009 Proclamation categorises CSOs into three groups, namely Ethiopian Charities and Societies;Ethiopian Residents Charities and Societies; and Foreign Charities. Ethiopian Charities and Societies cannot raise more than 10% of their revenue from foreign sources and, as a result, many of these struggle to find funding sufficient to carry out their work or even to remain in operation. Ethiopian Residents Charities and Societies and Foreign Charities are allowed to receive funds from foreign sources but they are not allowed to engage in various kinds of work. In particular, they are prohibited from carrying out advocacy activities in relation to human rights; elections and democracy; gender and religious equality; children’s rights; or the promotion of justice and law enforcement services among other activities. These restrictions have historically been defended by the State as necessary to ensure that activities of a political nature are carried out ‘by the government in collaboration with its citizens’ and not ‘foreign agents’ or entities.

The 2009 Proclamation sought to transform large parts of civil society into a service sector. One of the ways it did this was by strictly regulating the ways in which these organisations could distribute and use their funds. Most importantly, the law required all organisations falling within the scope of its application, regardless of their classification as Ethiopian, Ethiopian Residents or foreign, to allocate an amount of not less than 70% of their budget to operational costs and to allocate not more than 30% to ‘administrative activities’. The so-called 70/30 regulation was meant to ensure that the bulk of CSO funding benefited those in need. However, the Proclamation defined ‘administrative activities’ so broadly that it included a wide range of costs that normally would have been considered part of program implementation costs.  As a result, organisations have been unable to conduct training of their staff, hire researchers or commission studies, network or collaborate, participate in workshops and other learning and sharing opportunities (among many other activities) without overspending their allocated 30%.

Perhaps the single greatest problem in the regulation of CSOs, however, is the oversight of their governance by a Charities and Societies Agency. This is a government entity that is established to oversee and administer the registration, reporting and other activities of CSOs. It has been seen by many in the CSO sector as bureaucratic, incompetent and, worst of all, generally opposed to civil society as a sector.  The Agency has had wide discretion in regard to the registration and closure of CSOs, as well as a range of decisions affecting the day-to-day operations of these organisations.

Through the Agency’s administrative acts and decisions, the restrictive regulatory regime under the 2009 Proclamation has become more cumbersome, constrained and antagonistic to CSOs.

The new 2018 Proclamation – a new era for CSOs in Ethiopia

Although the new 2018 Proclamation starts in a very similar manner to the old – by stating that it is enacted for the purpose of giving effect to the right to freedom of association – the law outlines an entirely new approach to the regulation of civil society organisations. This is unsurprising as the committee appointed to redraft the law included a number of civil society representatives and the drafting process included consultation with CSOs and members of the public.

The 2018 Proclamation departs from the previous funding and membership-based categorization system and refers only to local (or indigenous) and foreign civil society organisations. The law now explicitly provides that all organisations have the right to engage in any lawful activity to accomplish their objectives. In other words, foreign and foreign-funded organisations are no longer prohibited from engaging in activities such as advocacy and human rights work. In fact, a provision has been included to specifically encourage CSOs to engage in advocacy and lobbying in regard to laws and policies “which have a relationship with the activities they are performing”.

While the old categorization of organisations has been abandoned, along with the limits of the activities of foreign and foreign-funded organisations, a shadow of this old system is found in the limitation on “lobbying political parties.” The law states that foreign organisations and indigenous (local) organizations established by Ethiopian resident, foreign citizens may not lobby or influence political parties, nor may they engage in voter education and electoral observation unless otherwise allowed by law. (The law provides that Ethiopian resident foreign citizens could avoid this restriction by establishing CSOs jointly with Ethiopian citizens). This provision aside, the law now actively calls on all CSOs to contribute to democratization and promoting the rights of their members.

Given the role that CSOs played in the drafting of the law, one surprising development is that state control over the distribution of funds is still in place. The 70/30 rule has been replaced by an 80/20 rule – now only 20% of an organisation’s income can be spent on administrative costs. The rule applies to all organisations ‘established for the benefit of the general public or that of third parties.’ At first glance, this appears to be a setback rather than an improvement in the law. However, the law now seeks to define more precisely and unambiguously what constitutes an administrative cost. These costs include salaries of administrative employees, property rentals, bank fees, attorney fees among others. They do not include training, research, networking and other costs that fell under administrative activities in the old law. This is a significant improvement even if the degree of continued state oversight of spending seems excessive.

Under the current regulatory system, CSOs have complained that they were obliged to obtain a range of permissions from the Charities and Societies Agency. Over the past decade, the Agency has had significant power to suspend and shut down CSOs and the authority to decide whether organisations will be permitted to carry out basic activities. CSOs have reported that extraordinary bureaucratic delays, incompetence, high staff turnover and corruption has meant CSOs are forced to wait for weeks (and sometimes months) to open bank accounts, finalise contracts, purchase vehicles and so forth.

The new law also establishes a Civil Society Organisations Agency with powers to oversee the registration and reporting of CSOs. The Agency’s discretion in regard to whether or not an organization may be registered and the circumstances in which an organization can be penalized has been significantly limited. The new law sets time limits on the administrative duties of the Agency (such as requiring the agency to deliver an approval to a CSO to open a bank account within 5 days) but it is not unimaginable that incompetence, high staff turnover and corruption will impede the new Agency and render the time limits meaningless. Importantly, CSOs also now have greater recourse to justice to challenge the decisions of the Agency, something many do not have under the current 2009 Proclamation.

Under the new law, the Agency’s board will be more representative. Under the 2009 Proclamation, the Board comprises seven members all of whom are appointed by the government, including two members to be appointed from the CSO sector. The new law increases the representation of CSOs to three, and stipulates that they are to be selected by the Council of CSOs, and not by the government.

Perhaps one of the most important developments in the law is that it advances a self-regulatory system for CSOs. The new law defines this as ‘a regulatory system led by a voluntary code of conduct adopted by Organizations through the Council to govern themselves’. The Council is a new entity created under the law, to be established by CSOs, but convened by the Agency. The law seems to envision a CSO led entity but one established with the assistance of the State.

Once established, the Council’s primary tasks are to: a) Enact the code of conduct for the sector, and devise enforcement mechanisms in consultation with the Agency, donors and other stakeholders, b) advise the Agency on the registration and administration of organizations, and c) represent and coordinate the civil society sector.

This move to self-regulation marks a significant shift. In the past decade, the sector has been tightly and closely regulated by the State. The new law creates a mechanism for self-governance, and ensures state assistance in putting the mechanism into place. A number of questions remain about whether the Council can effectively represent a sector as large and diverse as the Ethiopian CSO sector, and one that will likely undergo significant changes in this new regulatory environment. Questions also arise as to whether a relationship of trust and good will can be maintained between the Council and the Agency and whether close collaboration between these entities jeopardizes the Council’s independence.

Without losing sight of the many questions that arise, however, the shift to self-regulation is an intriguing and promising one. It demonstrates a shift in the way CSOs are perceived. They are no longer seen by the State as untrustworthy and self-serving, but as an important sector, and one that is best positioned to ensure CSOs are accountable, transparent, committed to good governance and to achieving all they can for their beneficiaries.

This has been a brief introduction to some of the key developments in Ethiopia’s new CSO law. While many questions remain about the effectiveness and efficiency of the new system, the law marks an exciting and important shift in the regulation of CSOs and in the State’s attitude to the sector. With the adoption of this new law, Ethiopia appears to have bucked a global trend towards stricter regulatory controls of CSOs and shrinking political space, as it moves towards greater respect for the right to freedom of association and recognition of the value and importance of a thriving civil society sector.



Category: Africa

Impact of Single Issue Funding on Sustainable Development CSOs

By Dina Townsend

By: Nicky Broeckhoven & Dina Townsend (Post-doctoral researchers, Tilburg Law School)

Researchers from Tilburg University and Mekelle University are currently collaborating on a project that aims to investigate the role of civil society organisations (CSOs) in securing sustainable development in Ethiopia. In our first blog post, we looked at restricted civic space and the impact thereof on local CSOs.[1] In this blog post, we discuss some initial findings on the impact of single issue funding. This project is part of the ‘New roles of CSOs for Inclusive Development’ Programme which investigates the assumptions underlying the civil society policy framework ‘Dialogue & Dissent’ of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This research is funded by NOW-WOTRO.

Mekele (Photo: D. Townsend)

Mekele (Photo: D. Townsend)

Over the course of the past six months, we have conducted a series of interviews with CSOs working in Ethiopia to better understand how these organisations adapt under a regulatory regime that radically constrains their funding and activities. While regulatory constraints affect the sustainability of these organisations, a recurring theme in our interviews concerns the considerable impact of ‘single-issue funding’. Single-issue funding includes grants and funding programmes that address problems and concerns in an atomistic and isolated manner.

Single-issue funding is particularly problematic for organisations working on complex environmental problems like sustainable development, climate change and food security. Both foreign and local CSOs reported that they have been forced to either shut down or shift their programme focus due to new funder priorities. The organisations we interviewed told us that funding opportunities over the past year or two have been concentrated in the area of migration and displacement. Work on food security and other resilience programmes do not meet the funding requirements for many of these grants.

One organisation described receiving funding from a Dutch Funder to address crisis relief in Ethiopia. With this funding, the organisation established a number of local initiatives focused on food security at a local, community level. In 2017, the Dutch funder changed the focus of that funding to address migration, and the organisation no longer qualified for funding. This resulted in a loss of years of built up expertise and good community relations. This is particularly problematic in the Ethiopian context where CSOs had been portrayed as self-serving and unreliable. It also affects the stability and resilience of the communities who had previously benefited from the work of the CSO. Productive and beneficial programmes are forced to either stop or shift their focus, as funding priorities follow the shifting political winds.

This example is particularly worrying from an environmental point of view as addressing concerns such as food security, sustainable development and climate change – which also may not fall under migration funding – generally require long term engagement and are rarely short term. In addition, an atomistic approach is in direct conflict with funders’ own aims and goals, as addressing environmental threats and ensuring food security are crucial components of addressing unsustainable levels of migration.

A shift in donor focus can also have a significant, and often overlooked, impact on the institutional set-up and human resource situation of a CSO. One organisation told us that, despite their extensive expertise in environmental issues, they no longer qualified for many grants. Donor priorities had shifted to migration and the organisation could not easily transfer the expertise they had to a new and different focus area. Another organisation described how changes in donor focus had had a serious impact on their financial stability, making it harder for the organisation to retain capable and qualified staff.

Our initial findings suggest that, while state regulation in places like Ethiopia may have a significant impact on CSOs, shifting funding priorities might also jeopardize their sustainability and undermine their efforts.

[1]  https://blog.uvt.nl/environmentallaw/?p=338

Category: Uncategorized

Bilateral treaties and corporate impunity: the recent developments of the Chevron Ecuador case before the Permanent Court of Arbitration

By Jonathan Verschuuren (TLS)


By Anna Berti Suman (TLS)

In December 2016, we published a blog post on the Chevron’s Ecuador ‘saga’, presenting the case as an example of the failure of the global environmental justice system. We presented five different scenarios of the battle for justice that since 1993 the Ecuadorean indigenous plaintiffs fight against the Chevron oil giant. Among these fronts, we here zoom in on the scenario that sees Chevron Corporation and its subsidiary Texaco Petroleum Co. against the Republic of Ecuador, the so-called ‘Chevron III’ case [1]. The case was initiated in 2009 by the company under the U.S.-Ecuador Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague [2]. Chevron requested the arbitral panel to declare the State of Ecuador (through Petroecuador, the oil public firm part of the Ecuadorean consortium in which Texaco operated) as the exclusively liable entity for any judgment issued in the Ecuadorean litigation, Chevron vs. Aguinda. Specifically, the arbitral panel was asked to invalidate the $ 9.5 billion dollars judgement rendered against Chevron in Ecuador in 2011 that found the company guilty for its oil dumping in the Ecuador’s Amazon region where Texaco (later acquired by Chevron) operated between 1964 and 1992. The judgement, issued in 2011 by the Ecuadorean Supreme Court, was recently confirmed by the Ecuadorean Constitutional Court [3]. Chevron’s argument is based on two grounds: first, the company lamented the violation of the U.S.-Ecuador BIT inasmuch as the State of Ecuador did not grant a fair trial to the company in the Ecuadorean judgment. In addition, Chevron defended that it was released from any liability by the Republic of Ecuador by signing an agreement with the State in 1998 absolving the company of any future responsibility for its past operations in Ecuador.

On August 30, 2018, the Permanent Court of Arbitration released an award in favour of Chevron, finding that the Republic of Ecuador violated its obligations to protect U.S. companies under the U.S.-Ecuador BIT and international law. The arbitral panel said that the 2011 Ecuador Supreme Court’s ruling had been obtained through fraud, bribery and corruption, thus violating Chevron’s right to a fair trial in Ecuador. The tribunal consequently held that the company is not obliged to comply with the $9.5 billion judgment [4]. In occasion of the Arbitration Court’s decision, Pablo Fajardo, lawyer of the Union of Affected People by ChevronTexaco (UDAPT) representing the 30.000 victims of the Chevron’s oil contamination, and Justino Piaguaje, President of the Secoya Indigenous people, visited Tilburg University. In a seminar organized by Professor Jonathan Verschuuren and Anna Berti Suman at Tilburg Law School on October 26, the guests discussed the Chevron-Ecuador case in light of the recent judgement, reflecting on the applicability of the award against the Ecuadorian plaintiffs and on the broader questions that such an award raises. Letty Fajardo Vera and Suzanne Hagemann, spokespersons of the UDAPT respectively in the Netherlands and in Switzerland, and Charlie Holt, legal counsel for Greenpeace International in Amsterdam, joined the seminar as discussants.

pic1 with blog_Annapic2 with blog_seminar overviewpic4 with blog_seminar

Mr. Piaguaje introduced the participants to the reality of life ‘on the side’ of the oil contamination left by Chevron and what this means not only for human health but also for the preservation of the unique indigenous culture and lifestyle. Mr. Fajardo continued the discussion with a focus on the legal questionability of the award. From a strictly legal point of view, Fajardo stressed that the allegedly violated U.S.-Ecuador BIT was signed on August 27, 1993, and entered into force on May 11, 1997, which is five years after the termination of Texaco’s operations in Ecuador. However, the arbitral panel applied the BIT retroactively to facts occurred prior to its entry into force. Secondly, it is pretentious that an arbitral panel can affect the Ecuadorean Aguinda ruling, because it cannot have any jurisdiction over the Aguinda plaintiffs that did not even appear in the arbitral trial. In addition, the alleged release from responsibility granted to the company by the Ecuadorean government when the company terminated its operations in Ecuador only regards government’s claims and not private parties’ claims like those of the Aguinda plaintiffs, as also stated in the 2011 Ecuadorean judgment [5].

pic3 with blog_Charlie_Justino-Pablo

The recent development of the case inspired a discussion on a number of aspects. First, the stand of the Permanent Court of Arbitration vis-à-vis victims of environmental crimes has been questioned.  As Fajardo stressed, it is inadmissible for an arbitral panel to order a State to invalidate a judgment issued in a judicial process between private individuals and ratified by all national judicial instances. The award puts the commercial interests of companies before the human rights of the affected communities. The risk that bilateral treaties may act as a shield protecting transnationals from accountability for human rights violations emerged. In addition, the ruling clearly undermines the sovereignty of the Ecuadorean State and its judicial independence. By asking Ecuador to invalidate the 2011 judgment, the arbitral tribunal is compelling the State to violate its constitutional norm, to disrespect the independence of functions, and to jeopardize the human rights of the Ecuadorian citizens. Overall, the dangerous precedent that this arbitral decision may set was manifested. As a matter of fact, the case risks to become a precedent for releasing from responsibility companies that, with the complicity of states, commit environmental crimes against human beings. The award represents a failure or lack of environmental justice in a system that appears rather dominated by corporate impunity.

Photo credits: seminar photos by Letty Fajardo Vera & UDAPT (bottom photo showing Pablo Fajardo, Charlie Holt, and Justino Piaguaje); Cuyabeno rainforest photo by Jonathan Verschuuren

[1] PCA Case No.2009-23, Chevron Corp. and Texaco petroleum Co. vs. the Republic of Ecuador.

[2] See Chevron’s Notice of International Arbitration Against Government of Ecuador.

[3] Case No. 174-2012, verbal proceeding No. 174-2012, Maria Aguinda Salazar y otros v. Chevron Corporation, Quito, November 12, 2013.

[4] For more information on the case see A universal obligation of enforcing environmental justice? The Chevron-Texaco case as an example of the actual system’s failure.

[5] Ruling of Presiding Judge Nicolas Zambrano Lozada, Provincial Court of Sucumbíos, 14 February 2011, pp.34, 176.


Urgenda Climate Change Judgment Survives Appeal in the Netherlands

By Jonathan Verschuuren (TLS)

Today, the Court of Appeal in the Dutch city of The Hague rendered its judgment in the Urgenda case. As explained here, in 2015, the District Court decided that the Dutch State acted negligently and therefore unlawfully towards the environmental NGO Urgenda by implementing a policy aimed at achieving a GHG emissions reduction for 2020 of less than 25% compared to the year 1990. The government of the Netherlands appealed the case mainly because it objected against the interference by the court with the content of government policies which should be discussed in Parliament rather than in Court, following the principle of separation of powers.

Climate change impacts affect the enjoyment of human rights: courts have to intervene

In another sensational judgment, the Court of Appeal today rejected all objections by the State in firm and straightforward language. The Court of Appeal stated that there is an imminent and real danger that the right to life and the right to private and family life as protected under the European Convention on Human Rights (Articles 2 and 8 respectively) will be infringed by climate change impacts. To reach this conclusion, the Court of Appeal, like the District Court in 2015, follows IPCC reports, but also resolutions adopted on all UNFCCC COPs of the past decade, which all indicate that the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has to remain within the 450ppm limit or even within a 430ppm limit if the 1.5 degree target were to be observed. The Court of Appeal briefly summarized the impacts that are considered certain when global average temperatures reach 2 degrees Celsius (No. 44).

The State is obliged, under this human rights treaty, to take protective action. When so asked by individuals or NGOs,[1] courts are obliged to test government actions (including policies) against human rights. So no infringement of the principle of separation of powers. On the contrary: testing government actions against human rights belongs to the core of the power of courts. By only setting the required outcome of policies (at least 25% emissions reduction by the end of 2020), the court leaves it up to the Cabinet and Parliament to discuss through which policy interventions this aim will be achieved, thus avoiding interference with policy-making.

In remarkably clear language, the Court of Appeal rejected all other objections that the State had brought forward and which resemble arguments brought forward in many of the other climate litigation cases across the world. I will deal here with the most relevant ones:

Uncertainty and precautionary principle

The State argued that climate change impacts are too uncertain a basis for claims like the one by Urgenda. Here, the Court of Appeal invokes the precautionary principle. The Court of Appeal stressed the importance of the precautionary principle, which it considers a binding principle in cases like these (referring to the text of the UNFCCC and the 2009 Tatar case decision of the European Court of Human Rights). Opposite to what the State argues, it is precisely the uncertainty (especially with regard to the existence of dangerous tipping points) that requires the State to have a proactive and effective climate policy (No. 73).

Causal link

Many cases elsewhere were unsuccessful because of a lack of causal link between the government policy on the one hand and climate change impacts on the other. In this case, the Court of Appeal argues that causality is less of an issue as no damages have been claimed, just an order to implement a certain policy. In that case, it “it suffices (in brief) that there is a real risk of the danger for which measures have to be taken. It has been established that this is the case” (No. 64).

Relationship to EU policies

The State argued that it has to follow and is following EU laws and policies and cannot be required to do more, as within the EU climate laws have for a large part been harmonized. The Court rejects this statement by referring to the latest Dutch policy goals for 2030, which aim at 49% reduction, which is more than the current EU target for that year. If the State wants to do more than the EU in 2030, it cannot argue that it cannot do more in 2020. Furthermore, the State did not substantiate its claims that having a stricter policy in place than that required by the EU harms the level playing field for Dutch companies. (Nos. 57-58)

Relationship to adaptation measures

According to the Dutch government, the Court should have taken into account the adaptation policies that have been put in place to protect the Dutch population against climate change impacts. This argument was rejected too. The Court of Appeal considered it unlikely that all severe climate change impacts can be dealt with through adaptation measures. (No. 59)

Interdependence policies other countries

The Dutch government also indicated that avoiding dangerous climate change impacts requires strict policies to be adopted across the world: since it cannot influence these domestic policies abroad, the Netherlands cannot be required to reduce emissions on its own. The Court of Appeal simply rejects this by referring to the special position of the Netherlands as a rich, developed state that has gained much of its wealth through extensive use of fossil fuels. Quite humourful, it adds: “Moreover, if the opinion of the State were to be followed, an effective legal remedy for a global problem as complex as this one would be lacking. After all, each state held accountable would then be able to argue that it does not have to take measures if other states do not so either. That is a consequence that cannot be accepted, also because Urgenda does not have the option to summon all eligible states to appear in a Dutch court.” (No. 64) There was an outbreak of laughter in the Court room after the latter sentence was spoken by the president of the Court of Appeal!

2020:  too short notice

Drastic policy changes like the one ordered by the Court in first instance are unattainable, we need more time. This argument used by the State in appeal was rejected too. The Court of Appeal simply referred to the fact that the State was aware of the IPCC reports dating back to 2007, and even, originally, had a much stricter policy in place for 2020. That policy, however, was changed in 2011, following elections. It now comes back as a boomerang!

Role of future generations

In the 2015 Court judgment, the Court indicated that the State also acts unlawful towards future generations. In today’s judgment, the Court of Appeal does not repeat this, but instead argues that human rights infringements are imminent already for current generations, so there is no need to also go into the question whether legal obligation towards future generations exist. (No. 37)

We will engineer ourselves out of the problems 

The State argued that its policy goals partly rely on climate engineering (“negative emissions technologies”) through which CO2 can later be removed from the atmosphere. The Court, however, is not willing to take these future technologies into account: “the option to remove CO2 from the atmosphere with certain technologies in the future is highly uncertain [..] (and) the climate scenarios based on such technologies are not very realistic considering the current state of affairs”(No. 49).


Today the Dutch Court of Appeal followed the bold move by the District Court in the world’s first successful climate litigation case of Urgenda. That first judgment of 2015 has sparked many initiatives across the world to start similar proceedings. The decision in appeal shows that the legal arguments used are valid. The new decision will, in my view, therefore, further boost global climate litigation.



[1] Here, Dutch law goes beyond what is required by the European Convention on Human Rights as under case law by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) environmental NGOs cannot invoke human rights in an attempt to defend the environment as a general interest. According to the ECtHR, NGOs are only allowed to represent the individual interests of their members in case their members are potential victims of human right infringements. See extensively Jonathan Verschuuren, Contribution of the case law of the European Court of Human Rights to sustainable development in Europe, in: W. Scholtz and J. Verschuuren (eds.), Regional Environmental Law: Transregional Comparative Lessons in Pursuit of Sustainable Development (Edward Elgar 2015) 363, at 371-372.


Supporting Local Civil Society Organisations in Ethiopia

By Dina Townsend

By: Nicky Broeckhoven & Dina Townsend (Post-doctoral researchers, Tilburg Law School)

Researchers from Tilburg University and Mekelle University are currently collaborating on a project that aims to investigate the role of civil society organisations (CSOs) in securing sustainable development in Ethiopia. This project examines how CSOs have evolved and changed in response to legislative limitations on their scope of work and funding, and how this has affected their ability to work on and promote sustainable development. In this blog post, we discuss some findings from interviews conducted with a range of organisations, based both in Ethiopia and abroad. This project is part of the ‘New roles of CSOs for Inclusive Development’ Programme which investigates the assumptions underlying the civil society policy framework ‘Dialogue & Dissent’ of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This research is funded by NOW-WOTRO.

JV1 rural ethiopiaIn 2009, the Ethiopian government adopted a new proclamation that governs the civil society sector. At the heart of this law is a system of categorization of CSOs based on their sources of funding and the nationality of their members. The law creates three groups. The first are Ethiopian Charities and Societies who are locally registered, controlled by Ethiopians and receive no more than ten percent of their funding from foreign sources. The second group, Ethiopian Resident Charities and Societies, are organisations registered in Ethiopia and whose members all reside in Ethiopia, but who receive more than ten percent of their funding from abroad. The last group, Foreign Charities, consists of those organisations registered in another country and controlled by foreign nationals, who receive their funding from foreign sources. The significance of this categorization is that only organisations falling into the first group, Ethiopian Charities and Societies, can engage in work related to human rights and democracy, and only these organisations can work on policy advocacy and lobbying. Organisations falling in both the other groups are primarily limited to service-oriented activities.

This regulatory regime has received worldwide attention and has been heavily criticized for closing down the political space of the CSO sector. For the most part, however, this attention has been focused on the impact of the regulatory regime on foreign and foreign-funded organisations (groups 2 and 3).

Over the course of the past few months, we have been conducting a series of interviews with organisations working on and in Ethiopia, in all three groups. What this research seems to suggest is that the impact of CSO laws on local Ethiopian Charities and Societies (group 1 organisations) has been severe, but largely overlooked in current debates in both academic and political fora.

While Ethiopian Charities and Societies can engage in political and human rights work, their ability to do so is radically constrained by their limited access to funding and excessive administrative and reporting obligations. These organisations struggle to raise local funds in a country plagued by poverty and in a political environment that has long viewed CSOs as suspect and as self-serving. Those with the capacity to fund local organisations are reluctant to do so either because they do not want to be associated with a sector historically viewed as hostile by the government or because they feel these organisations lack legitimacy and effectiveness.

JV3 rural ethiopiaThis lack of funding and local support means many Ethiopian Charities and Societies face high staff turnover and have been forced to radically downscale their activities, including reducing the scope of their work and the areas in which they work. Organisations working on environmental and development issues in remote and rural areas have often been forced to shut down regional offices. In one case, an organization informed us that it had to stop its programme on food security and related activities, and focused instead on single groups and rights issues, sacrificing the holistic, multi-faceted approach they had previously adopted and shifting their focus away from sustainable development priorities.

Ethiopia is in a moment of extraordinary political change. It is a moment of change that was almost unimaginable as recently as February this year when the government imposed yet another state of emergency in response to protests in the Oromia region. Under the leadership of the new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia has taken huge strides towards greater political liberalization over the past few months, releasing political prisoners and welcoming back the exiled political opposition. Prime Minister Ahmed has made it clear that revising the regulation of CSOs is a priority on his list of reforms. A working committee, consisting of various stakeholders, has already been formed to propose reforms in regard to a range of controversial issues, including the Charities and Societies law. For many working in the civil society sector, this is a time of great excitement and hope.

Many of the CSO employees we have interviewed, however, saw an ongoing need for foreign funders and organisations to be closely and carefully regulated, even if they consider the current regulation to be excessive. They believe that legitimate concerns remain about foreign funding, donor agendas and the potential for foreign influence in policy-making through the CSO sector. Even if the new regulatory regime will allow Ethiopian organisations to attract a greater degree of funding from foreign sources, many issues remain. For example, it is possible that greater foreign funding may do more to harm their reputations in an already hostile social environment. Many organisations are working hard to establish their legitimacy with both local communities and local government authorities and it is far from clear that an injection of foreign-sourced funding will improve those relationships. What’s more, foreign-funded projects in the sustainability sector often fail to understand the unique and complex social and environmental context in Ethiopia, resulting in projects that risk doing more harm than good.

JV2 rural ethiopiaThis raises an important question: What role could or should foreign funders play in supporting and assisting Ethiopian Charities and Societies, if any?

Our initial findings suggest that Ethiopian Charities and Societies need support of a number of kinds. These include support through research, networking, training and awareness-raising about their work and impacts. This is particularly important for those organisations working on environmental and sustainability matters who may need greater scientific input, or help communicating with farmers and communities in difficult to reach areas. This is work that can be done without directly funding these organisations and need not wait for regulatory change. Importantly, more efforts are needed to create and support sources of local funding, regardless of any changes that may come to the regulatory regime.

Our research thus far suggests that understanding the social environment in which these organisations operate is very important. In the next phase of our empirical research, we hope to extend our understanding of this environment by interviewing a range of social actors, including community-based organisations, church organisations, private sector actors, regulatory bodies and tertiary institutions.

Rural Ethiopia (All photos: Jonathan Verschuuren)

Rural Ethiopia (All photos: Jonathan Verschuuren)

JV4 rural ethiopia




Citizen participation in the decision-making over airports’ expansion agenda: the Amsterdam Schiphol case

By Anna Berti Suman



schipolThe Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, representing the fourth airport in Europe in terms of passengers and air transport and the third European airport in terms of goods, has generated technical, political, economic and social discussions about its expansive policies since its inauguration in 1916. The airport is owned by the “Schiphol Group”, a limited liability company which, together with Royal Dutch Airlines KLM, controls the airport’s expansionary policies. With the advent of the deregulation in the aviation sector in the early 90s, the Dutch government had to balance the interest of the national growth linked to airport expansion with the objectives of ecological sustainability. Currently, the sector is regulated – among others – by the Noise Abatement Act (Wetgeluidhinder), the Space Planning Act (Wetruimtelijke Ordening) and the Aviation Act (Wetluchtvaart), which from 2019 will be replaced by a single legislative framework, the Single Law on Environmental Planning (Omgevingswet; Staatsblad n.156). The legislative intervention aims precisely at balancing the protection of the environment and the conservation of the ecosystem with the interests linked to economic growth.

In order to counterbalance these opposing interests, a scheme based on the so-called “dualbeleidsdoelstelling” (dual political objective) was adopted at the national level. This approach has led to the creation of numerous collaborative bodies aimed at tackling complex problems and taking difficult decisions regarding the environmental impact of the airport. An example of such structural interventions aimed at creating a dialogue between the interested parties is the Alderstafel (Alders Table), founded in 2006 and still existing. The Alderstafel, named after its former minister and social democrat president Hans Alders, is a consultative body composed by representatives of the public sector, citizens and businesses. Specifically, the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment forms the Alderstafel for the first category. The municipalities potentially affected by the expansion, namely the Municipalities of Haarlemmermeer, Amstelveen, Uitgeest and Amsterdam, united in the Bestuurlijke Regie Schiphol (Address Commission for Schiphol) are also represented. Among the commercial parties, the representatives of the Schiphol Group, KLM and Air Traffic Control The Netherlands (LVNL) join the Table. Finally, the civic component is represented by the Schiphol Regional Advisory Committee and the Association of Consultative Platforms, reflecting the interests of the residents of the areas surrounding the airport.

The experience of Alderstafel produced in 2008 a leading opinion on the future expansion of Schiphol for the period comprised between 2008 and 2020. The opinion, adopted unanimously by the participants of the Alderstafel, was presented on October the 1st 2008 to the Dutch Government and  to the Dutch Lower House, which subsequently translated the opinion into agreements on limits to Schiphol’s growth and environmental impact. These agreements included a series of measures to limit noise disturbance in the medium and short term for the sake of the residents’ health and wellbeing, such as changes to routes, microclimatic approaches for limiting the local disturbance, measures to combat ground noise and higher fares for noisy aircrafts and night flights.

Experiences such as that of the Alderstafel find their justification in the right to participate in the res publica recognized to all citizens, a right which is not expressly formalized in the Dutch Constitution (Grondwetvoorhet Koninkrijkder Nederlanden). As a matter of fact, the Constitution seems to be limited to enunciate the right to hold a public office (Art.3), to elect (Art.4) and to present petitions (Art.5). Furthermore, also the right to health and to live in a healthy environment entail the right to participate in decisions that can affect such rights. While recognizing these rights, the Dutch Constitution seems to assign a primary role to the authorities designated for this purpose with regard to the protection of the environment (Art.21) and health (Art.22). Consequently, a constitutional recognition of a more active role of the citizen in defending these rights is missing. As Michels[1] pointed out, citizen participation in the Dutch system, although recognized as an element contributing to the strengthening of democracy, is nevertheless often limited to representative democracy. Michels and De Graaf[2] tackle the issue by observing how citizen participation in decision-making often plays an “instrumental” rather than expressive purpose. This would derive from the fact that participatory projects are frequently designed by the government and not by citizens. The authors point out that, in most of Dutch participatory decision-making experiences, as the Alderstafel, citizens have the opportunity to contribute to decisions by providing information and suggestions, without however changing the vertical structure of the decision-making process.

This contribution suggests that  a more ‘bottom-up’ application of participatory tools to the formal decision-making process in the case of infrastructural projects with environmental impact (in this case, noise pollution) would ensure that citizen participation is not a mere “democratic experiment”. To this end, an experience of civic participation from below is contextualised and problematized, in view of searching a proactive rather than passive citizen inclusion. The experience at issue regards a group of inhabitants living in the surrounding of Schiphol who decided to challenge the claim by the Dutch Government that noise could not be measured, but rather just calculated on the basis of mathematical estimates. In the name of the right to live in a healthy environment, citizens created a system of microphones positioned on the roofs of their houses to obtain evidence of noise impact on their quiet. Through Wi-Fi connection, such information on noise levels was sent from the microphones to the residents’ computers, which in turn transmitted this data to a central server via the network. The collected noise data was subsequently recorded on a website (currently called “Sensornet”). The publicly accessible website allowed users to view graphs of noise pollution in the surroundings of the Schiphol area, either in their entirety or specifically for each microphone. Difficulties in conducting the measurements, such as the problem of interference from other noises, were solved by triangulation methods in the arrangement of the microphones for each measuring station. Being an initiative based on unsophisticated technologies, there was the problem of microphones calibration and accuracy of the collected data. However, the detail and granularity of the information provided by the visualization of the acoustic loads recorded in 25 observation points during continuous periods compensated for possible technical weaknesses.

The initiative attracted the attention of a wider audience, composed not only of activists and local inhabitants, but also of influential non-governmental organizations, the press and public bodies. The platform from a local initiative became a noise measurement infrastructure at the national level. At the local level, numerous municipalities opposing the system of noise assessment supported by the government, adhered instead to the system born ‘from below’. A professional foundation, “Geluidsnet”, took over the “Sensornet” platform in order to create a joint venture between the bottom-up noise measurement infrastructure and 10 municipalities located in the affected areas. “Sensornet” currently appears as an established noise measurement platform that lists, among its customers, numerous Dutch municipalities (such as Gemeente Zoetermeer, Borne and Pijnacker-Nootdorp) and government organizations such as RIVM (the Dutch Institute for Health and the Environment) and ProRail (the public organization in charge of the Dutch railway network). Although the majority of “Sensornet” customers are now governmental organizations, the platform still provides an easy and accessible method for citizens to actively contribute in the measurement of noise pollution.

Although there has not been a substantial change in how the Dutch Government is assessing the noise, it is interesting to mention some concrete actions taken by the Schiphol Group that seems suggesting a greater attention to the interests of the citizen. For example, the airport has introduced specific flight techniques (routing) for departure and landing aimed at reducing the noise. In addition, the airport intends to minimize the background noise generated at the take-off of the planes through the use of specific barriers (ridges) adjacent to the slopes.[3]

The discussion on a proper appreciation of the contribution of the concerned citizens in the assessment of noise seems particularly timely at present days when the expansion of Lelystad Airport is under discussion. The Schiphol Group, also owner of this latter airport since 1993, today plans to expand Lelystad Airport in order to accommodate up to 10,000 flights in 2019, which is expected to become 45,000 flights in the following decades. Various activist groups oppose the expansion due to the project’s feared environmental and public health impact. To date, the Dutch Government still seems to prefer a calculation of the noise disturbance rather than its measurment.[4] Overall, it appears that the bottom-noise monitoring initiative had significant effects on local and national politics. However, Lelystad’s current expansionary agenda indicates that, in the Netherlands, the effective inclusion of the citizens in the decision-making process over infrastructural projects with high environmental impact is still scarce.

The present contribution through the analysis of two participatory tools, one from the top (the Alderstafel) and one from the bottom (the “Sensornet” noise measurement system), highlighted how citizens’ participation in environmentally impacting decisions can have a merely passive or, rather, a proactive role. In the first case, there is the fear that citizen participation becomes limited to a mere democratic experiment, an experiment that would not satisfy the citizens’ needs and would not lead to the resolution of the conflict. On the other hand, experiences of ‘bottom-up’ civic participation, although more responding to the needs of the citizen, would be more difficult to be accepted by the institutions responsible for managing the environmental issue.

Such participatory experiences aimed at creating a dialogue between interested parties in order to prevent or manage possible environmental conflicts could qualify as environmental mediation. Yet the experience of the Alderstafel, although representing a successful form of environmental mediation, nevertheless lacks the ability to ensure a proactive citizens’ contribution. Differently, the second experience, “Sensornet”, has effectively reconciled the needs of the local authorities, the municipalities concerned, with those of the citizens. Nonetheless, such bottom-up initiatives, as tending to reverse the vertical decision-making process, are difficultly compatible with the institutional status quo, as also proven by today’s expansion agenda of Lelystad Airport.


[1] Michels, A. (2006) ‘Citizen participation and democracy in the Netherlands’, Democratization (13)02: 323-339, doi: 10.1080/13510340500524067, p.323.

[2] Michels, A. & De Graaf, L. (2010) ‘Examining Citizen Participation: Local Participatory Policy Making and Democracy’, Local Government Studies (36)4: 477-491, doi: 10.1080/03003930.2010.494101, p.488.

[3] Schiphol Group (2018) Buitenschot – From ground noise reduction to land art park.

[4] De telegraaf (2017) Fouten bij berekening geluid Lelystad.



This post is partly inspired by the article published by Anna Berti Suman and titled “Challenging risk governance patterns through Citizens Sensing: the Schiphol Airport case”, recently published in the journal “International Review of Law, Computers & Technology” with ISSN: 1364- 6885, DOI: 10.1080/13600869.2018.1429186.


Energy dual pricing as a harmful fossil fuel subsidy: What the WTO can do

By Anna Marhold

Energy dual pricing has been a contentious topic in the WTO for decades, but now the focus is on its harmful environmental effects. Dual pricing encourages wasteful consumption of fossil fuels and displaces cleaner sources of energy. There are several ways in which the WTO can and should contribute to reforming and phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, and tackling dual pricing practices is one of them.

 What is energy dual pricing and why is it harmful?

Energy dual pricing is a practice through which resource-endowed states sell their energy resources at significantly lower prices on the domestic market – for instance, through their monopolistic state trading enterprises – as compared to the price on the export market. The main reason for states to maintain dual-pricing policies is to provide their domestic energy consumers with cheap energy and their intensive industries with low-cost fuel inputs. Russia, Ukraine and the OPEC members, notably Saudi Arabia, are some of the countries that have used dual-pricing policies over the last decades.

It is debatable whether dual-pricing policies are WTO inconsistent per se, but it is certain that these policies are trade-distorting and have an impact on international trade. More importantly, considering the way dual-pricing policies are administered, they can fit into the broader category of environmentally harmful fossil fuel subsidies. Dual pricing allows setting the domestic price of energy from fossil fuels artificially low: countries that maintain these policies thus encourage the burning of “cheap” fossil fuels at below global market prices, to the detriment of switching to cleaner forms of energy. In this way, dual pricing undermines the competitiveness of green energy and contributes to increased CO2 emissions in the atmosphere.

Constraining dual pricing under existing WTO rules

Although the WTO was primarily created to deal with matters that affect cross-border trade, the global trade body can, and should, contribute positively to eliminating fossil fuel subsidies, including dual pricing and its negative impacts on the environment. For instance, a WTO member may raise a case in dispute settlement if its domestic industry suffers significantly from another WTO member’s dual-pricing policies that result in cheap energy inputs for competing industries.

If administered in a way that restricts quantitative exports of the energy resource, dual-pricing measures may fall foul of Article XI.1 of the GATT, which prohibits quantitative import and export restrictions on goods. GATT Article XVII on State Trading Enterprises (STEs) could also serve as a basis for a potential claim, as an STE of a WTO member maintaining dual pricing policies may be found to behave in a discriminatory manner.

More importantly, there is also a good argument to be made that dual-pricing practices constitute prohibited or actionable subsidies – Article 3 and 5 of the Subsidies and Countervailing Measures Agreement (ASCM). This would depend on whether the dual-pricing measure fits the definition of Article 1 ASCM. As an example, the government provision of cheaper energy inputs for energy intensive industries could be considered a “government provision of goods and services”.

Considering the case law already in existence, the Anti-Dumping Agreement (ADA) is perhaps an even more straightforward tool in countering the negative impact of dual pricing. It could be argued that dual pricing is a case of “reversed input dumping”; in other words, that goods which benefit from cheap energy inputs – by means of below-market energy prices – are dumped on the market of the importing country (for example steel products) due to cheap domestic inputs. At present, there are several such cases pending in the WTO: European Union – Cost Adjustment Methodologies and Certain Anti-Dumping Measures on Imports from Russia and EU – Anti-Dumping Measures on Certain Cold-Rolled Flat Steel Products from Russia.

While environmental concerns may not be the primary motive for a dual-pricing case in WTO dispute settlement, it may have positive knock-on effects.A dispute settlement case would certainly attract attention to the necessity of phasing out dual-pricing policies. It would also send a strong signal that these policies are not immune to being challenged in the WTO.

Moreover, such a move could back recent efforts to put the important issue of fossil fuel subsidy reform on the WTO radar. In fact, during the WTO’s Eleventh Ministerial Conference (MC11), held recently in December 2017, a group of WTO members issued a ministerial statement about the need to  reform fossil fuel subsidies, seeking to advance discussion in the WTO on achieving ambitious and effective disciplines for fossil fuel subsidies, including through enhanced transparency and reporting.

Inspiration from EU free trade agreements

Beyond existing rules, WTO members should consider revisiting the negotiation of a prohibition of dual pricing within the WTO legal framework. This could be part of larger efforts to reform subsidy rules. Although efforts to include a prohibition on dual pricing have been unsuccessful in the past, momentum has been created in view of climate change mitigation commitments and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Moreover, the recent accomplishments by the EU serve as a successful example of tackling dual pricing: the topic of dual-pricing prohibitions has been raised in several stages of Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations. More importantly, an actual prohibition of dual pricing has been taken up in the trade-related energy chapter of the recent EU–Ukraine Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement.

Creating policy space to support green energy

Aside from using the multilateral trading system to curb dual pricing, its negative environmental effects can be offset by creating more policy space for green energy. For this, it is essential to redraft and rethink current subsidy rules in a sophisticated manner.

The WTO could learn from the options provided by the EU rules on state aid: the Commission Guidelines on State Aid for Environmental Protection and Energy 2014-2020 offer detailed instructions to EU member states on how to design their support for green energy. The goal of the guidelines is to propose a market-based approach towards green energy support schemes, while at the same time ensuring that these schemes remain in line with EU State aid law. The WTO could develop similar guidelines for its members, thereby ensuring that members design their green energy support schemes in a WTO-consistent manner.

Moreover, state aid rules provide a set of accepted exceptions set out in the General Block Exemption Regulation (GBER). The regulation declares certain elaborate categories of state aid towards green energy as being compatible with the internal market. These options could serve as a model for WTO members when considering the wider reform of subsidy rules.

Forward action

The EU examples may serve as an inspiration for longer-term solutions within the WTO framework. At present, apart from exploring the options under existing rules, it is crucial that WTO members continue to push for including the topic of fossil fuel subsidy reform on the WTO’s agenda. The recent ministerial statement on fossil fuel subsidy reform is a good start, and follow-up actions are now needed to take reform efforts forward. Most importantly, the demandeurs of fossil fuel subsidy reform will need to continue stressing the importance of fossil fuel subsidy reform in view of climate change mitigation.


This contribution was originally published as a blog for the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development, Geneva, and is available through this link. It is derived from the paper Fossil Fuel Subsidy Reform in the WTO: Options for Constraining Dual Pricing in the Multilateral Trading System commissioned by ICTSD and authored by Anna Marhold. It is part of the E15 engagement track  through research and policy dialogues on fossil fuel subsidies.

Category: Energy, WTO

Suing Oil Companies for Climate Change Adaptation Costs

By Jonathan Verschuuren (TLS)

In the Netherlands, no cases have been lodged against emitters of GHGs yet. This is somewhat surprising, given that one of the world’s leading oil companies, Royal Dutch Shell (RDS), has its headquarters in the Netherlands and given the fact that around 60% of Dutch land is prone to flooding, either by rivers or by the sea. An extensive regulatory and administrative system is in place to plan for and execute measures to protect the land against sea level rise and increased water run-off in rivers under climate change.[1] It is estimated that the Dutch government needs to spend 26 billion euros for coastal and river adaptation measures alone.[2]

(Photo: Flickr user Shell)

(Photo: Flickr user Shell)

Dutch tort law would allow tort cases against polluters to be lodged, as long as complainants can show that they suffer damage caused, at least to some extent, by this and other GHG emitters. Between 1988 and 2015, Shell ranked as the 9th biggest emitter or GHGs, being responsible for 1.7% of all global GHG emissions.[3] There is some experience with tort cases against RDS in the Netherlands for its actions abroad. In 2013, several cases were lodged before the District Court of The Hague both against RDS and its Nigerian subsidiary for causing extensive damage by oil spills in Nigeria. These cases were lodged by individual Nigerian farmers and a Dutch environmental NGO, and were successful, be it only against the Nigerian subsidiary, not against the parent company.[4] The court determined that the Nigerian subsidiary of RDS violated a duty of care and was liable for negligence for not having taken measures to prevent sabotage to its wells, which caused the spills. The court ordered the subsidiary to pay damages to the Nigerian farmers.[5] Given their high public profile as one the biggest Dutch multinational corporations and given this successful case in the past, it is not unlikely that climate change related cases will emerge sooner rather than later.

The flood of cases against RDS and several other major oil companies in the United States may well be the trigger for such future cases in other countries, including the Netherlands. In 2017, seven Californian municipal and country governments filed cases against RDS and others (“big oil”), in an attempt to claim damages from sea level rise, altered water cycles, increased wild fires etc.[6] In January 2018, New York City filed another lawsuit in a federal court, again against RDS as well as BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil, to recover adaptation costs to protect the city against sea level rise and increased storm intensity.[7]

The complaint in the latter case is a very interesting document that in very strong and persuasive words argues that these companies’ actions constitute an unlawful public and private nuisance and an illegal trespass upon New York City property because they produced, marketed, and sold fossil fuels ‘for decades and at ever more dangerous levels while knowing of the harm that was substantially certain’ and that lead to ‘damage from climate change, including inundation, erosion, and regular tidal flooding’ of the city’s property and to ‘imminent threats to its property, its infrastructure, and the health and safety of its residents’.

As stated above, the case is entirely focused on adaptation costs. The complaint refers to a number of actions already taken on which billions of dollars have been spent:

-        Protect vulnerable residents during increasingly severe heat waves (which already kill more New Yorkers each year than all other natural disasters combined)

-        Reinforce NYC coastline and elevate its infrastructure within the floodplain.

In addition, it looks ahead to future adaptation measures that need to be taken:

‘the City must build sea walls, levees, dunes, and other coastal armament, and elevate and harden a vast array of City-owned structures, properties, and parks along its coastline (…) [such as] enlarge existing storm and wastewater storage facilities and install additional facilities and associated pumping facilities and infrastructure to prevent flooding in low-lying areas that are vulnerable to rising seas and increasingly severe downpours.’ According to the complaint, ‘these are long-term design and construction projects that must be built to last for decades, often up to fifty years or more. The City must take these actions as soon as possible in order to protect public health and safety and City property and infrastructure. The costs of these largely unfunded projects run to many billions of dollars and far exceed the City’s resources.’

What is particularly interesting in this case, is the emphasis that is placed on the special position that these big oil companies have, not just because of their large share in global fossil fuel production, but also because of their role in misinforming the public. The complaint devotes several pages of text to the campaign orchestrated by the oil companies to cast doubt on climate science and gives detailed examples of covert attempts to mislead the public. The complaint concludes:

‘Defendants are not only quantitatively different from other contributors to climate change given their massive and dangerous levels of fossil fuel production over many years—they are also qualitatively different from other contributors to climate change because of their in-house scientific resources, early knowledge of climate change impacts, commercial promotions of fossil fuels as beneficial despite their knowledge to the contrary, efforts to protect their fossil fuel market by downplaying the risks of climate change, and leadership roles in the API and other organizations that undertook a communications strategy for the fossil fuel industry. In this coordinated effort to discredit the science, which began in earnest during the 1990s and has continued in a subtler form even in recent years, Defendants and their agents and advocates have made the alleged “uncertainty” of climate science their constantly-repeated mantra. The purpose of this campaign of deception and denial was to increase sales and protect market share.’

In my view, these cases against ‘big oil’ in the US may very well pave the way for a global flood of litigation against oil companies. The recent adoption of the Principles on Climate Obligations of Enterprises by a group of former judges and law professors from around the world will help push this movement.[8]

Another interesting recent development is the growing pressure on investment banks and pension funds to divest in fossil fuel related projects.

In the Netherlands, in 2017 a first step towards challenging investment portfolios of banks and pension funds in case of climate unfriendly investment was taken by the submission of a complaint under the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. Several environmental and development NGOs submitted a complaint against the Dutch multinational ING Bank, which is heavily involved in funding fossil industries, including funding new coal fired power plants in developing countries. According to the NGOs, ING is violating several provisions of the OECD guidelines, such as the duty to adopt ‘measurable objectives’ and ‘targets for improved environmental performance’ and to disclose greenhouse gas emissions, both ‘direct and indirect, current and future, corporate and product emissions.’[9] The NGOs request ING to start reporting on its indirect greenhouse gas emissions and to establish and pursue goals which will bring the bank’s indirect greenhouse gas emissions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement. In November 2017, the National Contact Point of the Netherlands declared the complaint admissible. This seems to be the first time a climate change related complaint is found to be admissible by any National Contact Point for the OECD Guidelines.[10] Although this is not a procedure before a court of law, this case may provide a precedent for future cases before domestic civil courts.


[1] Jonathan Verschuuren, Jan McDonald, ‘Towards a Legal Framework for Coastal Adaptation: Assessing the First Steps in Europe and Australia’ (2012) 1:2 Transnational Environmental Law 355-379.

[2] https://deltaprogramma2016.deltacommissaris.nl/viewer/paragraph/1/deltaprogramma-/chapter/het-deltafonds-financieel-fundament-onder-het-deltaprogramma/paragraph/de-financiele-opgaven-van-het-deltaprogramma

[3] Paul Griffin, The Carbon Majors Database. CDP Carbon Majors Report 2017 (CDP 2017), 14.

[4] On January 30, 2013, the District Court of The Hague rendered separate judgments in five cases brought by four Nigerian farmers and fishermen, supported by the Dutch branch of Friends of the Earth (Milieudefensie), against the Nigerian subsidiary of Shell and its former and current parent companies in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. The most important judgement is Akpan v. Royal Dutch Shell PLC, Arrondissementsrechtbank Den Haag [District Court of The Hague], Jan. 30, 2013, Case No. C/09/337050/HA ZA 09-1580 (ECLI:NL:RBDHA:2013:BY9854). An (unofficial) English translation of this and the other four judgments is available from Milieudefensie’s website.

[5] See in more detail, Nicola Jägers, Katinka Jesse, Jonathan Verschuuren, The Future of Corporate Liability for Extraterritorial Human Rights Abuses: The Dutch Case against Shell, (2014) American Journal of International Law Unbound “Agora: Reflections on Kiobel”, e-36/e-41.

[6] Michael Burger, Local Governments in California File Common Law Claims Against Largest Fossil Fuel Companies, blogpost Sabin Center for Climate Law, 18 July 2017, http://blogs.law.columbia.edu/climatechange/2017/07/18/local-governments-in-california-file-common-law-claims-against-largest-fossil-fuel-companies/, and Jessica Wentz, Santa Cruz Joins Other Municipalities Suing Fossil Fuel Companies for Damages Caused by Climate Change, blogpost Sabin Center for Climate Law, 8 January 2018, http://blogs.law.columbia.edu/climatechange/2018/01/08/santa-cruz-joins-other-municipalities-suing-fossil-fuel-companies-for-damages-caused-by-climate-change/.

[7] Nicholas Kusnetz, New York City Sues Oil Companies Over Climate Change, Says It Plans to Divest, Inside Climate News 11 January 2018, https://insideclimatenews.org/news/10012018/new-york-city-divest-sued-big-oil-climate-change-costs-exxon-chevron-bp-shell-mayor-deblasio . The full text of the complaint is available through this blogpost.

[8] Expert Group on Global Climate Change, Principles on Climate Obligations of Enterprises (Eleven International Publishing 2017).

[9] The full text of the complaint (in English) is available online through https://www.oxfamnovib.nl/persberichten/klacht-tegen-ing-vanwege-schending-oeso-richtlijnen.

[10] According to one of the NGOs involved, see: https://www.oxfamnovib.nl/nieuws/klimaat-klacht-tegen-ing-in-behandeling-genomen.






Category: Adaptation, Climate

Understanding and Enhancing the Contribution of International Law to Lion Conservation

By Melissa Lewis

As one of the world’s most iconic and charismatic megafauna, the lion, Panthera leo, is a species whose conservation attracts international concern from conservationists and the global public alike. However, lion range and numbers have declined markedly over the last two decades.

In a recent publication in the journal Nature Conservation, two members of the Tilburg Environmental Law Team (Arie Trouwborst and Melissa Lewis) collaborated with biologists and social scientists from the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit  (WildCRU) to assess the present and potential future role of international wildlife treaties in lion conservation.

Lionesses, Kruger National Park, South Africa (photo: M. Lewis)

Lionesses, Kruger National Park, South Africa (photo: M. Lewis)

Like other species of large carnivores, lions present a special set of conservation issues from a legal perspective due to their great spatial requirements, elevated human-wildlife conflict potential, and role as both keystone and umbrella species. For these reasons, and because of the transboundary nature of many lion populations and some of their threats, international law plays a distinct role.

Lion conservation has featured prominently on the agendas of certain wildlife treaties – including the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and, more recently, the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS). In October this year, for instance, Parties to the latter Convention will decide whether to list the lion on one of the CMS’s appendices, and will further consider the adoption of several draft decisions of significance for lions and other African carnivores. Although sometimes less obvious, a range of other treaties also play a role in the endeavor to conserve the world’s remaining lion populations. For instance, 39 of the sites that are currently designated as Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention, and 18 of the areas that have been designated as World Heritage Sites under the World Heritage Convention, are of actual or potential significance to lions.  A myriad of regional instruments are also relevant – examples including the African Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, the SADC Protocol on Wildlife Conservation and Law Enforcement, the various treaties establishing transfrontier conservation areas (TFCAs), and even the Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats.

Lion, Kruger National Park, South Africa (photo J. Lewis)

Lion, Kruger National Park, South Africa (photo J. Lewis)

In this paper, we identify not only a substantial body of relevant international wildlife law, but also a significant potential for enhancing these instruments’ contribution to lion conservation. We argue that the time is right to invest in such improvements, and we provide both general and treaty-specific recommendations for doing so. With the 2017 CMS Conference of the Parties fast approaching, the paper’s support for augmenting this Convention’s role in lion conservation is especially noteworthy. The paper concludes that: 

“Given the fragmented collection of treaties which currently apply to lions and the absence of adequate international instruments and/or institutions for lion conservation in at least portions of the species’ range, an important role appears, in principle, to be reserved for the CMS, both in terms of coordination and gap-filling. Listing lions under the Convention would be a logical step in this regard … [and] would both signal the need to develop more elaborate species-specific frameworks for lion conservation and sustainable use and increase the avenues available for achieving this.”

It further provides recommendations for making optimal use of the Ramsar and World Heritage Conventions and TFCA agreements in sites of importance to lions; outlines possibilities for adjusting CITES’ restrictions on the trade in lions and their parts; and emphasizes the importance of maximizing range states’ participation in, and compliance with, wildlife treaties, and of promoting strategies which involve the local people who live alongside lions.


Arie Trouwborst, Melissa Lewis, Dawn Burnham, Amy Dickman, Amy Hinks, Timothy Hodgetts, Ewan A. Macdonald & David W. Macdonald (2017) “International law and lions (Panthera leo): understanding and improving the contribution of wildlife treaties to the conservation and sustainable use of an iconic carnivore“. Nature Conservation 21: 83-128.


Movie Review: Unlocking the Cage

By Ismet Öncü

(Student, Tilburg University)



The DNA of a chimpanzee matches for nearly 98% with the DNA of a human. Does this mean that they should be entitled to the same rights? As of today the main question to determine whether you have a right or not is: are you a human being? In Unlocking the Cage D.A. Pennebaker and documentary veteran Chris Hegedus follow Steven Wise in his extraordinary challenge to break down the legal wall that separates animals from human beings. His team’s, the Nonhuman Rights Project, objective is to transform an animal, more specific ‘’non-human’’ animals, e.g. chimpanzees, whales, elephants, from a ‘’thing’’ with no rights to a person that has legal protection and legal personhood. Wise and his team are making history by filing the first lawsuits to achieve this goal.


unlocking the cageThe movie tells a story about the Non-human Rights Project (NhRP). This is an animal rights organization that tries to establish legal personhood for certain ‘’non-human’’ animals.  These non-human animals are for example apes, elephants and cetaceans etc. It is possibly the only organization in the United States that puts time into achieving actual legal rights for animals. Their goal is to achieve a change in the legal status of non-human animals from just ‘animals’ into a legal person who possesses (fundamental) legal rights (e.g. the integrity of the body or bodily liberty). They try to achieve their goals through litigation, advocacy and education. Besides the already mentioned goal of changing the common law status of non-human animals, their goals are furthermore to consider other qualities that may be sufficient for recognition of nonhuman animals’ legal personhood and fundamental rights: inspiration is drawn from evolving standards of morality, scientific discovery, and human experience. The NhRP also develops local, national, and global issue-oriented grassroots campaigns to promote recognition of nonhuman animals as beings worthy of moral and legal consideration that have their own inherent interests in freedom from captivity, participation in a community of other members of their species, and the protection of their natural habitats. The organization aims to build a broad-based coalition of organizations and individuals to secure legally recognized fundamental rights for nonhuman animals and to foster understanding of the social, historical, political, and legal justice of their arguments and the scientific discovery of other species’ cognitive and emotional complexity that informs them.

The organization consists of a diverse team but what they have in common is an affection for law and animals. The team includes animal rights lawyers, legal experts and law students who work on a voluntary basis. Steven Wise is the organization’s “leader”. Wise is a respected teacher and author in the field of animal rights and animal jurisprudence. His subject ‘’Animal Rights Law’’ is taught at various universities across the United States.

The movie follows the ambitious efforts of Wise and his team in the period 2013 – 2015. The team tries to make history by going to the courtroom, attempting to improve animals’ legal position and give them rights. Their first step is the establishment of these rights for apes, elephants and cetaceans and after that other animals should follow. These animals were chosen because they have all been studied and it is determined that they have highly developed cognitive skills and awareness of themselves. Wise calls this a ‘’theory of mind’’.

Wise sets out to prove that cognitively complex animals (like the animals mentioned above) do have the capacity for limited personhood rights. Pennebaker and Hegedus have been following Wise’s and his teams’ historical battle for two years in order to understand what it means to be autonomous and whether sentient beings should have the right of freedom.

In the movie we see Wise and his team going around the state of New York in order to look for apes and see in which circumstances they live. Some apes were held in sanctuaries where they try to communicate with their human keepers. Other apes on the other hand, are being kept solely for the sake of being kept. Wise’s team builds court cases around those latter non-human animals (apes in this matter). As a starting point, Wise selects individual animals (Merlin and Koko for example) and his main goal is to establish legal personhood for these particular animals. His team takes action step by step in order to achieve this goal. The question is how fast this will happen. ‘’This is the end of the beginning’’, to quote Wise at the end of the movie.

The movie

Since the past decades, the fight for animal rights has become a growing movement. It is a movement with many fronts and expressions, from principled vegetarianism (but not exclusively) to the denouncement of animal experimentations. Unlocking the Cage focusses on the American front and on one intrepid animal advocate.

The movie revolves around the law suits lodged by the NhRP. Tommy is a chimpanzee who was isolated in a garage. Wise and his team demanded in the lawsuit that Tommy would be released and transferred to a Florida sanctuary. The lower judge was impressed by Wise’s arguments and directed the lawsuit to the Appellate Court in Albany. It was in 2014, in that case, that judges openly discussed the matter regarding legal personhood of non-human animals. Nevertheless, the results were unfavorable: Tommy was moved to a zoo and remained in deplorable conditions.

The next case involved a chimpanzee named Kiko. This case evolved in a different way compared to Tommy’s case. This case was a great showcase of the legal disagreement that exists on the question whether to enlarge the legal system by attributing legal rights to non-human animals or not. The case was rejected in first instance, but an appeal is planned before the appeals court.

The chimpanzees in the final case, Hercules and Leo, were used for research at New York’s State University. This was the case that truly challenged the court. Wise argued against the New York’s assistant attorney general by making a plea that made judge Barbara Jaffe question whether a chimpanzee should not be deemed a person for the limited purpose of permitting the writ of habeas corpus.

My opinion

(Ismet Öncü)

(Ismet Öncü)

In the past it was assumed that legal persons were individual human beings only. However, the personhood of corporations has also been affirmed. The personhood of corporations is routinely used as a liability and litigation tool: the question in this matter is whether the definition of “personhood” can also be expanded to include non-human animals? Can we compare the personhood of a corporation or a human’s personhood to the animal personhood? The former two can result into their own liability (and thus can results into liability for damages). This is not the case with animals. They are not entirely free from harm and exploitation.

While fervent animal rights advocates have argued for personhood for animals, the critics denounce the assertion as absurd. There has been some skepticism regarding this matter. However, the animal rights movement has slowly and zealously been inching for a while. In the world of animal law Wise is a known person and his achievements are inspiring. Below I will discuss my opinion on the pros and cons of the movie.


I can really recommend this movie for animal lovers, especially for those who are in law school. The movie is well paced and very informative. Unlocking the Cage has started the conversation about animal rights and since this movie more and more people started to listen. Speciesism is causing the destruction of the planet earth and this movie gives insight into that matter. Unlocking the Cage takes the next step in human evolution.

The movie was praised by national (American) and international media. They stated that the movie was a ‘’heroic courtroom thriller’’.

In my personal opinion the movie was a real eye-opener into a matter that was unknown territory for me. It is inspiring to see how passionate and with so much conviction Wise and his teams are committed to reaching their goals.


On the other hand, some of Wise’s viewpoints seem to be counterintuitive. How can an animal with no language or any other form of human culture have standing to seek redress from human institutions? Animals cannot start a legal process; thus it must be done on behalf of these animals. But do we have adequate animal advocates who are willing to do that? This is still a matter that remains unclear. Beside these procedural issues, practical concerns need to be addressed too. In the courtrooms, for instance, will these ‘’animal cases’’ be judges in front of the same judges where people start their lawsuits? Under which jurisdiction? Civil? Criminal? Will we need a separate jurisdiction within our legal system in order to deal with these animal cases? One judge’s decision on whether  a chimpanzee can have personhood ran over 30 pages and that says a lot. There are a lot of question that still need to be answered. Nevertheless, this does not devaluate the efforts of Wise and his team to bring awareness to the (legal) position of non-human animals.

Furthermore, I found that some of Wise’s arguments are stronger than others. He states that apes, elephants and cetaceans could be seen as ‘’legal persons’’ based on their ‘’theory of mind’’ and other human attributes. But is this not still a matter of scientific debate? It could be possible, in my opinion, to deny that these non-human animals Wise selects, are smart animals. It seems an arbitrary line to draw. Moreover, his intimation to a reporter that a chimp’s captor should move into a cage, in order to see if he likes being in there, seems a bit foolish to say the least. We, humans, do also not like to inhabit underground tunnels but this does not mean that rats are not perfectly happy there.

The goal of this movie is to create awareness but in my opinion Wise’s accomplishments disappoint at this point (apart from the moral victories). Wise and his team have not achieved much in those 2-3 years the camera crew of Hegedus and Pennebaker followed them. The things they do accomplish had already been covered in the news. This makes the movie feel kind of redundant. Most of the time the viewer looks at Wise’s appearances in various TV shows (i.g. The Colbert Report). Those parts are not trailblazing. The most interesting parts is the footage which provides a look into the New York State Supreme Court, where we can follow Wise arguing for his petition. In my opinion this back fired a bit, because the judges were asking genuinely probing questions and that made the whole matter seem even murkier. In short, this movie did not (yet) achieve much in the interesting matter of personhood of non-human animals.

Another question is whether there is a taxonomic reason for this matter to be made into a movie.  Some biologists have argued that there is no legitimate taxonomic reason to consider humans and apes as part of the same gen. The discussion on this subject has not yet ended in literature.[1] This matter goes back to Dawkin (2004) who popularized the notion that we (i.e., human beings) are the ‘’third chimpanzee’’. However, it is still not clear if human beings are great apes or not. This is important for our conceptualization of a human being. The scientific evidence in support of the point of view that we are great apes lies in anatomical and morphological arguments. Marks (2009) refers in this matter to the common ‘’Y5’’ pattern, a rotating shoulder, fused caudal vertebrae and a large and complex brain. On the other hand Dunbar (2008) claims that human beings differ from great apes. The critical aspect in his point of view lies in our imagination (e.g. religion, story-telling). In my opinion humans can be considered as humans and great apes are our closest extant relatives. It is our own ego that insists on dividing the line between humans and apes.


Overall Unlocking the Cage remains a great movie which gave me insight into the matter of animal legal rights. Unless the fact that I gave more cons than pros, I can really recommend (and I already did) to anyone who has an affection for law and animals combined. This movie captures a shift in our culture, as the public and juridical system show receptiveness to Steven Wise and his team’s impassioned arguments. Unlocking the cage is an intimate look at a lawsuit that is unprecedented and that could forever change our legal systems, if additional specifications, in my respect, are made.


[1] One may refer to Dawkins, R., The Ancestor’s Tale (2004). Bouston: Houghton Mufflin. Dunbar, R., Why Humans Aren’t Just Great Apes (2008). Ethnology and Anthropology. 3:15-33. Marks, J., Why Be Against Darwin? Creationism, Racism, and the roots of Anthropology. Yearbook of Physical Anthropology, 55: 95-104.

Category: Animal Law

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