Founding member and Political Director


This is the transcript of a video interview produced and directed by Michael O'Callaghan (with and Helena Norberg-Hodge) at the U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development, in Johannesburg, in 2002. Full transcript (2,767 words, slightly edited for clarity).
© 2002-2019 Global Vision Foundation.
What should companies and governments focus on now, ten years after Rio?

Get on with the business of implementing their commitments! And corporations have to stop undermining the implementation of the legally-binding agreements and the development of further legally-binding agreements. The truth is that in the post-Rio decade, corporations have at best been dragging their feet, and in a large number of well-documented occasions, they've interfered to prevent the implementation or the further development of international law.

How do we get around the problem of governments now being mostly influenced by corporate agendas? How can we get the citizens to take responsibility?

I think that's a good question! There is a lot of talk of corporate responsibility these days, there is talk of corporate accountability in the context of the financial scandals that have occurred in the US and elsewhere, with corporations making up their own accounts. I don't need to draw you a picture, right? Enron and WorldCom are just the tip of the iceberg in that area. But there is much less talk of corporate accountability for environmental damage and socially wrongful behaviour, and it's high time to sort this out!

So, one proposal of the majority of the NGOs that have been campaigning around the World Summit on Sustainable Development has been the call for an International Framework for Corporate Accountability. You have some very very charismatic examples that show the need for such corporate accountability, of a trans-boundary nature. Bhopal is perhaps the most charismatic and saddest example, with this company Union Carbide, which now belongs to Dow Chemicals. Dow Chemicals bought the assets but also the liabilities of Union Carbide. They were running that chemical factory in India under conditions that would be inconceivable in the United States where the company comes from. They were just saving money at the cost of human health. And when it broke apart it killed thousands of people! That was eighteen years ago, and the place is still contaminated. The survivors have to drink contaminated water, they live on contaminated soils, and Union Carbide and Dow Chemicals have not taken their responsibilities. Actually, as you may have seen on our web site, we've just found the former CEO of Union Carbide who's been on a search warrant from the Indian authorities for the last eleven years. It took us just three days to find him in a luxury apartment in the New York suburbs, but during those eleven years the FBI has not moved their finger once to pick him up and send him to justice in India? So there is a lot of talk of corporate accountability, but when it comes to actually doing it, governments don't have the political will.

During this process we've seen corporations advocating the adoption of what they call "voluntary partnership initiatives" instead of government regulations. We are not against voluntary partnerships per se, they can be a good thing - if they are well targeted and aimed at the right thing - as long as they are conceived to complement government action and to re-inverse government action. But the US administration in particular and the corporations have proposed that these voluntary - they always use the word voluntary - partnership agreements substitute government action. And that is totally unacceptable! It really represents, I dare say, an abdication of the main responsibilities of our governments which is to regulate economic and commercial activities with a view to protecting the health and well-being of people and the future. And if these guys - these ministers and heads of state - are not capable of cleaning up the mess, then they are abdicating their responsibilities and we should draw the conclusions.

How serious an emergency situation do we have now from humans' impact on the environment?

Well, it's been said recently that if current consumption of natural resources continues at the current rate, within 50 years we're going to need another two additional planets to fit the world, because the resources that sustain the life on this planet are going to run out. And clearly we don't have another two planets, so perhaps we should send George Bush to another planet, and get on with protecting our home!

Corporations and the governments that they employ these days are very reluctant to do what needs to be done. If the Political Declaration and the Plan of Implementation which result from this WSSD conference only produce voluntary agreements for corporate responsiblity, is there any hope we can get a global Framework Convention on Corporate Accountability?

[Remi's mobile phone rings] So, what were we saying? George Bush lives on another planet! It really seems so, no? This guy is a weirdo. [Waving to camera] Hi George! Heh heh...

If this conference doesn't produce those results...

Well look, the interference of corporate power with governments is not especially a new thing. But with the globalisation trend it seems to have increased tremendously and it's a real problem! And the reason why this World Summit on Sustainable Development has so much difficulties to deliver something worth while is because the trade agenda has dominated international politics in an unprecedented manner in the last three years. And corporations and governments have a lot of explaining to do! The current text which is under negotiation is really, really, really bad! I'm talking about Saturday 3.30 pm. It's really a step in the wrong direction! This conference was supposed to be a Rio plus ten; I'm not the only one who said, a few weeks ago actually, that we had to watch out because it could be Rio minus ten, but it's getting so bad that it may be even Stockholm minus 20. You remember Stockholm, the first UN conference on the human environment of 1972: that was better than what these guys are coming up with! As someone who's been watching and been involved in the development of international environmental law for a few decades, I'm stunned! I'm depressed. And I'm not quite sure, if this continues this way, right? - It's Saturday, 3.30, there's another three days to go - if the outcome is as bad as it looks today, I'm not sure what we're going to do next, frankly... We have to put a lot of thinking into this...

Is there anything else you'd like to say, for a general TV audience?

Well, one good thing has happened here with the WSSD is that the expectation is very high. There is a very very high expectation relayed by the mass media. And you would speak a few weeks ago with any politician or virtually every journalist, they would tell you well the involvement is off the agenda now, nobody's really interested, everything is about terrorism and security, you know? I must say they were not capable of making the link between security and what we call real security, which includes environmental security, right? But in the last weeks there has been very very high expectation, and I do hope that the heads of state and government will have felt this tension, this expectation from their public, from their voters, before they come.

So, you know, what else is there to do? I don't know, if it fails... If it does not fail, then we'll have to work on the targets. But if there are no targets, then governments will have a lot of explaining to do, and so will those corporations that have been promoting only voluntary agreements.

You know that last week in this conference, we did something rather unusual. We did a joint call for action with the president of the World Business Council on Sustainable Development that was quite unprecedented: a call to governments asking them to implement the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change - and it's Kyoto Protocol. So I hope that the few countries that are still doing everything to sabotage the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, because they claim this is not good for private enterprise, will reflect on that joint call for action which Greenpeace did with the World Business Council on Sustainable Development, with its president. Now, Colin Powell must be somewhere in the air between Washington and Johannesburg, and so is Jean Chrétien from Canada, and so is that chap who will represent Australia, given that I understand the prime minister of Australia is not even coming. I hope they can reflect during this long flight, that they have to change at least their rhetoric when they disembark, because it's going to be harder for them to say that private enterprise cannot cope with the Kyoto Protocol in the light of that statement.

Would you like to say a short soundbite on why genetically modified food crops are not a good idea, for people who may not understand the issue?

There are many concerns over genetically modified organisms in food and agriculture, but I think the most compelling concern is with regard to the impact on biodiversity. I think the impacts on biodiversity are increasingly getting beyond the implementation of the Precautionary Principle, because it's increasingly demonstrated that the impact is there and that it's irreversible in nature. When you talk about human health you invoke the Precautionary Principle. With GMOs, there are serious uncertainties, but the impact on biodiversity is there! We've seen it recently with the case of the maize contamination in Mexico, which is the centre and origin of maize. And where, in accordance with the Protocol on Biosafety adopted by the United Nations in January 2000, they should not bring GM maize. But there was extremely high levels of contamination found a few months ago in Mexico.

How do you think it came about that humans became so ignorant and negligent of nature?

Well it's striking that most people would not forget to pay their insurance policy to cover any damage to their house or to their car, but when it comes to the insurance policy of their wider home, their planet, they don't feel so concerned. When I say people, don't get me wrong, I don't want to put the finger on people, but it's too often not enough on top of their list of the priority. But we need that insurance policy for the planet, and we're not providing it. And, as I said, if we're going to continue the rate we go, if current trends continue to go in the same direction, we'll need two other planets in fifty years. You know, it's not a joke: what are we going to do?

Helena, do you want to ask a question?

HELENA NORBERG HODGE: Don't you agree that even if the rhetoric changes, corporate accountability is the most important question? So even if the rhetoric includes setting certain targets, how do we ensure that these targets are actually met and that there's a real effort to implement them?

RÉMI PARMENTIER: Well I think targets are signals. So targets stimulate the market, they stimulate government, they stimulate ministries, they stimulate civil society. I tell you, I started to work on environmental policy just a few years after the Stockholm conference. And, for years, we used to quote the Stockholm Declaration, you know, and different things, and we would go to go to environment ministries - which in Europe were in their infancies in that time - and we would say "Well, you know, the Stockholm Declaration says this so do it!" And we got quite a lot of stuff through, I must say, in those days in terms of laws and so forth, you know, building the institutional framework.

And then came Rio, and Agenda 21 was adopted, the blueprint for sustainable development and - as well as the Rio Principles and the Rio Declaration - and we kept going back to governments and to UNEP and to different institutions where the implementation of Agenda 21 would take place and we would say "Well, put your words into action! You are committed through the backing by your head of state or government of Agenda 21 to this or that measure" right? And these efforts led to a number of steps. .For example the Biosafety Protocol, this instrument that regulates the use of genetically modified organisms in food and agriculture, and re-interates the right of any country to say no to GMOs on the basis of the Precautionary Principle. Well, that was, you know, there is a tiny little paragraph in Agenda 21 saying that a group should be convened to look into biosafety issues, you know, in Agenda 21, and we built from that! There was another example also in Agenda 21, there was a request for UNEP to convene a conference on Land-Based Sources of Marine Pollution, with a special focus on Persistent Organic Pollutants. We worked with UNEP for the adoption of that action programme for the elimination of pollution arising from land-based activities. And we had a big battle with the chemical industry in the framework of the adoption of that action plan, over the treatment of Persistent Organic Pollutants such as Dioxins for example. And we got Dioxins in, we got the POPs in, the agreement - as part of that plan of action - that there should be what is known in the UN jargon, an International Negotiating Committee to consider the adoption of a Convention for the elimination of those pollutants. And finally, at the end of 2001, this convention was adopted in Stockholm. So it took us ten years to build from it, but that happened.

So the important thing is putting the words into action, but each time we have industry dragging their feet - or frankly opposing it. And if we're not there to push, you know, governments don't do their job, it's as simple as that. That's the crude reality! And if you look at the progress that has been made since Rio, I mentioned a few issues in which we were quite involved and there are other existing examples, they have all been possible because there were NGOs and civil society organisations that were pushing for it. In the ministries, they have a tendency to sleep, right? So come on, the siesta is over!

HELENA NORBERG HODGE: I've been warning about economic centralisation or globalisation for 25 years. And I feel confident that awareness is growing of the central role that these treaties have had in giving corporations more power, basically deregulating their activity, destroying millions of smaller local and national businesses. Do you see a possibility for Greenpeace to focus on this issue of economic activism, changing the economic policy to be subsumed under the umbrella of environmental protection?

RÉMI PARMENTIER: Well first let me say that we've been working on these trade issues for a long time. Unless I'm wrong, Greenpeace was the first organisation to do an action on the World Bank building many years ago. And I think the first time the Director General of the then GATT, it was not then the WTO, the first time he found a big banner on his building it was, I think, a Greenpeace banner opposing patenting of life - I'm talking of banners here - so, you know we've been involved. We were in Seattle addressing the relationship between the environmental agreements and trade rules. We were instrumental, I think, in promoting the Biosafety Protocol and in preventing the WTO from hijacking it in Seattle, together with many people in Seattle, but our focus was biosafety, right? We were in Doha; I went to Doha with our vessel the Rainbow Warrior, to just symbolically show that they could run to Doha but they could not hide, you know the saying, "you can run but you can't hide". The Doha Agenda is a drag! But on the other hand they only got 25 per cent of what they were looking for so it has to continue. Cancun is a big challenge, there is no question. Once this thing is over, we have to focus on Cancún [i.e. the WTO conference in Mexico- Ed] much better, no doubt. And to answer your question, I wish that Greenpeace would put more of the economic arguments because in all our campaigns - whether it's biotech in agriculture, ocean fisheries, toxics, nuclear energy, climate change, nuclear disarmament - the economic argument is very strong, it's fundamental. And unfortunately also people worry more about their wallets and what happens to their taxes than to more holistic aspects of the issues. So yes, I agree, and I wish we had more resources to focus on the economic arguments. I must say that I've been discussing this possibility with some colleagues that you probably know. 
At the time of this interview, Rémi Parmentier was a founding member and the Political Director of Greenpeace International, which he maintained until 2003. He is considered the main architect of the worldwide ban on the dumping of industrial and radioactive wastes at sea that was adopted by the Parties to the London Convention in 1993, a Greenpeace campaign which spanned 15 years.
In 2003 he and Kelly Rigg co-founded the Varda Group consultancy, which offers strategic advice and campaigning expertise across a wide range of environmental and social issues.