Should demanding the establishment of an Environmental Criminal Court be considered a step too far, then it might be necessary to review this stance based on the facts, which prove that environmental crimes are expanding more rapidly than other types of organized crimes, and are generating profits of over 300 billion dollars annually.
What people know about the work of the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) is that it coordinates law enforcement among states, preventing impunity from justice and making the world a safer place. In addition to prosecuting fugitives accused of individual crimes, Interpol focuses its attention on major transnational criminal networks, especially in the areas of terrorism, drug smuggling, money laundering, currency counterfeiting, fraud and combating cyber crime.
Environmental crimes are the latest major addition to Interpol’s mission, not only because they endanger natural resources, biodiversity and public health, but also because they threaten international security.
Environmental crimes are linked to other types of traditional crime, by financing terrorist and criminal activities and corruption. They thrive in areas affected by war, strife and armed conflict, where central state authority is weak. Some war zones have turned into open dumps for dangerous nuclear and chemical waste, as has been the case in some Arab countries.
Environmental crimes comprise illegal activities that harm the environment to the benefit of individuals or groups. They include trade in protected wild species of plants and animals, overexploitation of forests, illegal fishing in seas and oceans, trade in toxic wastes and hazardous materials, depletion of natural resources beyond their capacity to regenerate, as well as pollution of air, soil and water.
Although environmental crimes are prevalent all over the world, few countries have clearly incorporated them into national legislation and established deterrent penalties, thereby facilitating impunity.
The European Union countries have made great progress during the last two decades in incorporating many environmental offenses within criminal offenses punishable by law. This was accompanied by the strengthening of cooperation among customs authorities in controlling the movement of freight with countries outside the European Union and within the EU itself, expanding the scope beyond traditional contraband, such as drugs.
The environmental report recently issued by EUROPOL, the regional European equivalent of Interpol, is evidence of the growing interest of EU countries in environmental crimes. The report, entitled Environmental Crime in the Age of Climate Change, highlights the dangers of environmental crimes to Europe, as well as on long-term climate commitments. The report found that illegal environmental activities are attracting increasing interest from traditional criminal networks, seeking to recycle their dirty money in areas that are more difficult to detect, under the cover of legitimate industrial and commercial activities.
Examples are many, such as hazardous and toxic wastes being transported by companies operating under the guise of “waste management”, and buried in corrupt countries that lack laws to prevent these practices. Another example is of fishing companies which deplete marine resources through over exploitation. Those are joined on land by criminal timber companies which cut protected trees indiscriminately, thus destroying forest balance.
These types of criminal trade are supported by international freight carriers with legal licenses. It is reported that Lebanese traders, in partnership with government officials, tried in 2016 to export tons of waste to dubious destinations, through European companies that turned out to be bogus.
With the number of environmental crimes increasing exponentially, it is sometimes challenging to link them directly to organized crime. This is mainly due to the disparity in judicial systems between countries, the low risk of exposure compared to traditional crimes, and the low penalties imposed on them, despite their extreme profits. All this makes them attractive to criminal networks.
However, the looming dangers of climate change have finally made environmental crimes a top priority, because they may cause climate and environmental degradation that exceed the desired results of measures to cut down carbon emissions in order to reduce global warming. Hence the growing interest in the issue, as the EUROPOL report shows.
The most important conclusion of the European report is that most environmental crimes are carried out under the cover of legitimate ventures, including operating legally registered facilities for the production and storage of prohibited materials that are not covered by the license. Companies licensed to export plastic waste from Europe collude with companies in other countries to reduce costs and double profits, by not complying with procedures. It was found that a third of the plastic waste exported to Asian countries for treatment and recycling ends up in random landfills and the seas.
In addition to exporting used plastics to Asia, waste “management” companies transport hazardous waste from Western to Eastern Europe for processing, often mixing it with prohibited waste to accumulate profits. Among the waste transported under the guise of trade exchange are old ships, which some companies dump in international waters after being paid for processing and recycling them properly. This includes electronic waste, the dismantling and melting of which, in order to extract valuable materials, causes dangerous pollution in the absence of strict standards.
One of the most recent areas that environmental crime networks are trying to infiltrate are those that fall under categories such as “green buildings” and “sustainable investment funds”. Misusing these labels, they try to attract investors to pump money into projects with an environmental facade, such as renewable energy and green real estate development, while in many cases they may be polluting activities that use the environment as cover in order to obtain government support and attract people interested in protecting the environment.
Licensing these projects is made possible by vague and wobbly conditions required for environmental performance certifications, such as energy efficiency ratings or standards for building insulation materials, which often allow manipulation. Loopholes in carbon emissions trading allow big opportunities for criminal exploitation.
Today, environmental crime ranks fourth among the types of crime in the world, and interconnects with traditional organized crime networks, besides providing them with a cover. A recent report on a secret police operation revealed that during one meeting an organized crime gang discussed operations involving drug smuggling, money laundering, endangered animal smuggling, shipping protected timber, and transporting hazardous waste using forged documents.
Organized environmental crime networks, same like any other organized crime networks, can only be confronted by strong legal and security systems with clear jurisdiction.