Starting today, agrochemical firm Monsanto will be the subject of a ‘moral tribunal’ at The Hague. Supporters say the grassroots, civil society-led action is a show of defiance against ‘corporate entities that cause harm’

Featuring 30 witnesses and hundreds of grassroots groups from five continents, a three-day people’s tribunal at The Hague this weekend will consider the actions of US agrochemical business Monsanto.

Five international judges will hear evidence from scientists, toxicologists and other witnesses – including doctors from Argentina and Mexican beekeepers – before making what is expected to be a lengthy judgement.

The tribunal, which is being livestreamed, has no standing in law but will follow the procedures of the UN’s international court of justice. Hundreds of grassroots groups have united to back the event, which they say is an attempt to hold Monsanto accountable for alleged human rights violations, crimes against humanity, and ‘ecocide’ – widespread environmental damage. The ‘moral tribunal’ is also in protest, they say, at the lack of available legal tools to bring companies to justice.

Monsanto, which is the subject of a £51bn takeover by German conglomerate Bayer, declined to take part. Many know Monsanto for manufacturing Agent Orange for use as a chemical weapon in the Vietnam war. It has since grown to become the world’s biggest genetically modified seed corporation. Monsanto also makes glyphosate, the primary ingredient in controversial herbicide Roundup. In a statement explaining why no Monsanto representative would attend this weekend, the firm accused tribunal organisers of being “fundamentally opposed to modern agriculture”.

“There is nothing anti-agriculture about wanting a world free from harmful, dangerous and energy-intensive chemicals and pesticides,” Dr Damien Short, director of the Human Rights Consortium, told Positive News.

“In a world gripped by an ecological crisis and scarce resources, only organic farming and permaculture have long term futures which are compatible with our planetary boundaries and ecological health.”

Nick Mole, policy officer at the Pesticide Action Network (PAN), one of the organisations involved in planning the tribunal, said: “In fact, it is fair to say that companies like Monsanto are anti-agriculture and anti-progress. They are stuck in the old fashioned, post-war thinking that they can control and tame nature with their arsenal of toxic chemicals. We are seeing that nature cannot be tamed and that trying to do so can have serious consequences – the declines in pollinator species being just one example.

“We are in support of a progressive agro-ecological style of agriculture that works with nature, not against it. Organic, small scale agriculture can provide sufficient yields that will enable us to feed the people of the planet without doing harm to it.”

Dr Short described the event as a “practical and symbolic show of defiance and resilience in the face of political systems that are reluctant to punish those corporate entities that cause harm on a daily basis and on a worldwide scale”.

And Nick Mole said the fact that so many people, groups and organisations had come together to back the initiative highlighted the huge concern at the practices of global corporations such as Monsanto.

“There has, for a long time,” he said, “been mounting evidence that actually these companies are not having a benign effect, quite the opposite. They are damaging people and planet in pursuit of profit. This tribunal is a chance for civil society to show its discontent at what is happening.”

This tribunal is a chance for civil society to show its discontent at what is happening

Polly Higgins, a leading advocate of ecocide law, told Positive News the tribunal is important in many ways. The fact it is led by civil society, she says, will help give a mandate to NGOs and other organisations to take strong stances on potentially polarising issues such as genetic modification.

“People are saying ‘we have had enough’,” said Higgins. “Rather than leaving it to world leaders to do something about this problem, people are doing it themselves. It is not only testing evidence but it is allowing people to tell their stories: it is giving voice to those with experience and knowledge about a really critical issue.”

In an open letter, signed by three Monsanto directors, the company claims the tribunal fails to offer “real dialogue” on the world’s food and agriculture needs. “It is a staged event, a mock trial where anti-agriculture technology and anti-Monsanto critics play organisers, judge and jury, and where the outcome is pre-determined,” reads the 15-paragraph letter.

It continues: “We have pledged to listen more, to consider our actions and their impact broadly, and to lead responsibly. We realise consumers, farmers, and the food and agricultural industry each have a stake in how crops are grown and food is produced. We strive to be transparent about what we do, the science that supports our research and product innovation, and the peer-reviewed proven safety records of our products.”

But despite the tribunal being organised by groups opposed to some of Monsanto’s practices, Nick Mole from PAN insisted the outcome is by no means predetermined. “We do not as yet know whether Monsanto will be found guilty of the charges, as it is not a kangaroo court.

“I think that what the event really highlights is the fact that civil society has been let down by our politicians and regulatory authorities. They allow, for example, the use of harmful pesticides and have until now failed to hold the companies that harm our planet to account for their actions. This is saying that civil society has had enough and we want redress. And the only way at the moment is through this tribunal. But perhaps the tide is turning. We should not underestimate the power of the people.”