COVID-19: A Call to Renew the Morality Framework in International Environmental Law


As the winter began to draw to a close and early signs of Spring became evident in New York City, New Yorkers prepared for the ban on plastic bags effected through domestic legislation geared towards environmental protection. At that time, the reduction of the ubiquitous bag seemed to loom large over the City with lawsuits being initiated on the basis that this environment protectionist shift would affect the economic wellbeing of various industries. This change in culture and habit undoubtedly pales in comparison to the changes that came in the wake of the tidal wave that is COVID-19. As a result of the changes, restrictions, vast job losses and other measures and consequences forced into place by COVID-19, the ban on plastic bags was indefinitely suspended.

When we consider this usurpation of priority of plastic reduction for environmental conservation by COVID-19, it is hard not to be struck by a sense of irony and disheartenment. This seems to be a metaphor for the ostensible vastness of the virus dangerously shadowing the less ostensible vastness of climate change and environmental destruction.

The Origins of COVID – Humans and the Environment

The persisting rumors that the virus was born in a lab is an apt metaphor for the existing tensions that exist between International and Domestic law and policy. As the current American administration has now formally begun the process of pulling out of the Paris Agreement, we note a persistent trend in the government moving away from scientific research and towards populistic paradigms that work to benefit capitalism and corporations. This failure to engage meaningfully with our environment speaks directly to the origin story of COVID-19 and the perceivable shortcomings of International Environmental Law that arguably allowed for the inception of the virus. Although there continues to be controversy surrounding the origins of COVID-19, the scientific evidence suggests that the virus was incepted via zoonotic transfer.

This speaks directly to our relationship with the natural world and the environmental protections that are in place. The question must be considered as to whether International Environmental Law goes far enough in instituting safeguards that might mitigate the spreading of viruses from animals to humans. It is worth noting that such safeguards are not only for the protection of human beings who are now suffering from the exponential spread of the virus, but also for the protection of the animals – that is to say the animals who may have been the originating source of the virus but also animals who can be contaminated via exposure of the virus from human beings including our closest animal relatives.

One of the issues that should give us pause in the wake of this pandemic is our relationship with animals and the manner in which we exploit them for economic gain. The main international treaty that comes to mind in this context is The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (“CITES”), the preamble to which recognizes the “irreplaceable” nature of wild flora and fauna and acknowledges as well, “the ever-growing value of wild fauna and flora from aesthetic, scientific, cultural, recreational and economic points of view”. This recognition of the invaluable role of wild flora and fauna must be renewed as we are currently witnessing first-hand the debilitating results of interfering with their natural environment. The co-relation between CITES and COVID-19 may seem tenuous at first glance. However, when we consider the aim of the treaty in preventing or at least mitigating illegal international trade, the co-relation becomes more evident. Once members of society fall outside of the internationally agreed and accepted scope of the protective measures for wildlife, the safeguards thereby instituted are broken down.

As noted by Ivonne Higuero, Secretary-General, Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, “Illegal wildlife trade contributes to habitat destruction, which removes necessary buffer zones between humans and wild fauna, making it more likely that animal pathogens come into contact with people. Specimens that are traded illegally are also much less likely to be sold or bought where sanitary standards are being properly enforced, making the spread of diseases more likely. We know that many emerging infectious diseases in recent times have originated in wild animals. Many of them were not considered illegally-traded CITES-listed species. However, illegal wildlife trade flows will only make these episodes worse, by degrading or bringing people too close to animal habitats, and therefore contributing to the spread of diseases.” This is a palpable example of how the objectives of international law treaties can assist in the amelioration of global health.

Moving Forward – The Constraints of International Law by the Domestic Forum

COVID-19 has unearthed a host of socioeconomic problems that disproportionately affect vulnerable members of our society. We must not forget however, that the urgent issues affecting our environment continue to rage on in the background to this pandemic. We must also be aware of the ongoing consequences of climate change that will continue to impact us, and disproportionately impact vulnerable members of society as we again enter into the hurricane season and the hotter months of the year where forest fires will leave yet another path of destruction. While the international community continues to take steps towards reaching the Sustainable Development Goals and putting measures in place to protect the environment, this will literally be meaningless if domestic policies shy away from the internationally agreed standards that should be implemented.

This momentous period of time seems to be opportune to infuse a sense of morality and solidarity into our legal frameworks. It is time to take stock of and recognise the crippling effects that can result in a disregard for animal welfare. It is time to put the health of our planet and all of its inhabitants before profit margins and capitalism. Until every state can take recognition of these truths and foster an awareness of the indispensable need for global cooperation, international law and its safeguards will always be fettered.

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