In early January, I had the privilege to speak to colleagues at the Department of Justice. I am grateful to have spent time during some of my “formative years” in government there. I was lucky to serve under one of my personal heroes, Attorney General Janet Reno, and a friend and mentor, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland. I also spent invaluable time working with two incredible former leaders of the DOJ Environment Division – Lois Schiffer and John Cruden. I would not be able to do the work I do now at State without the fundamentals in the rule of law that I learned at the Department of Justice.
During my visit, I outlined our priorities in OES for this year and reinforced how critical collaboration with the Justice Department is to our success. Even though our agencies’ missions may appear vastly different, in fact they are quite similar. In essence, we both promote good governance around conservation and adherence to the rule of law. And we start with an important advantage in the United States because our domestic environmental laws are among the best in the world.
For those who are not familiar with our work in the OES Bureau, let me paint a picture of what we really do when you boil it down to its essence. We work to foster international cooperation and collaboration across the entire spectrum of environment and conservation law. This includes ending the scourge of global and transboundary pollution; disrupting vast international criminal networks undertaking illegal mining, logging, and wildlife trade, and illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing; and creating international frameworks on fighting climate change and biodiversity loss. In addition, we are forging cooperation and governance norms on space exploration, artificial intelligence and quantum computing that are taking us to the outer limits of scientific discovery. Not a small task!
Yes, of course, we represent the United States in multilateral negotiations and international organizations, and we negotiate on behalf of the American government and public. But we also build governance capacity with international partners and help structure international laws and norms and institutions, so that governments have a foundation from which to keep peace and ensure prosperity in an increasingly small world with finite natural resources. And in doing so, we are working to make sure justice is served – particularly for those who are most impacted by scarce resources, environmental degradation, and the vicissitudes of climate change. As such, we continue our work to advance the rule of law and key legal principles that allow environmental defenders and their often-underserved communities to have access to information, the ability and opportunity for public participation in decision-making, and access to justice on environmental matters.
We at the State Department appreciate that for this work to be FULLY realized, there must be accountability – which requires transparency, monitoring, reporting and ultimately, when all else fails, enforcement. And, from that perspective, there is untapped potential for State and the Justice Department to work closely together – even more closely than our organizations already do.
For example, this year we hope to conclude a new global agreement to protect areas in the high seas. We will work with countries around the world to help create more marine protected areas both in their domestic waters and on the high seas. We will also work through various global climate change mitigation and adaptation initiatives to help countries in the Amazon and the Congo, among others, to halt and reverse forest loss. Thus, the first tenet of our work is to create clear and enforceable governance over areas and activities in order to conserve the environment.
We know that the rules and governance we are creating must be effectively implemented and capable of being enforced because otherwise these protections are nothing more than words on a page and lines on a map. Nothing brought this home to me more than the time I spent with the park rangers in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Virunga National Park, honoring the lives of the more than 200 of them who had been killed by violent insurgents who were seeking to undermine the rule of law in this precious gem of a park.
Sadly, we know that enforcement of environmental laws is sorely needed in far too many parts of the world. We are determined in 2023 to do even more in partnership with other governments to combat nature crimes like wildlife trafficking, illegal logging and illegal mining. We will continue to target criminal networks globally. These are the same groups trafficking in other illicit substances, fueling corruption, and laundering money gained from nature crimes – crime that is valued at hundreds of billions of dollars each year. We are also increasing our efforts to combat IUU fishing, with a focus on its connections to forced labor issues, piracy and maritime security generally, as well as lawlessness at sea.
To be effective, we must find new ways to work with the Justice Department to be able to prosecute more nature crimes. We need to draw bright, “enforceable” lines and design clear governance mechanisms to create a true dragnet of cooperating nations that effectively marshals all the major tools available today to bring criminals to justice. We must hold accountable all the bad actors who are stealing the precious natural resources of poor nations, plundering the ocean, polluting wantonly, killing environmental defenders and park rangers at a shocking and horrifying rate, and enslaving people to carry out these criminal acts.
Rule of law globally matters, particularly for conserving the environment. The time is now to recommit ourselves to ending nature crimes once and for all.