The Global Environment: A Challenge For New Alliances

Publish date: October 13, 1998

Written by: Thomas Jandl

The case of Amnesty adoptee Alexander Nikitin casts a shadow on the future of the environmental movement. Where environmental groups have to fight a superpower's national security apparatus to assure an activist's basic rights, new coalitions are required to level the playing field. Through the Nikitin case, Bellona has become a household name in the U.S. Congress, with supporters ranging from liberal Senator Ted Kennedy to the conservative edge of the Republican Party.

Environmentalists are used to getting in trouble. For times eternal, the environment has been an area where the interests of those with power collide with the interests of those with a need . One wants to improve a profit margin, while many need the clean water in the river. Often, the "one" wins.

Where people stand up to defend their rights – from traditional rights to use a forest to codified laws about environmental standards – they meet resistance. Resistance from those who are in the wrong. And that’s where environmental protection rubs up on the issue of human rights.

Environmental groups have leveled the playing field through providing a collective voice and a resource pool for individuals who take on powerful lobbies. That made them a threat to the powers that be.

These used to be economic-political powers. But in recent years, with the globalization of trade and the opening of borders, the notion of "environmental protection" has widened. Increasingly, the frontiers of environmental protection and national security are collapsing, and what used to be a clean dividing line between diplomacy and activism is getting blurred. Today’s environmentalists face the danger of a new enemy: a state’s security apparatus.

Norway has had her share of that experience. The Bellona Foundation’s employee Alexander Nikitin was arrested on treason charges, for writing an environmental report. Sure enough, he wrote about the Russian nuclear submarine fleet, where he was an officer in the Soviet days. No organization likes whistle-blowers from within, but Alexander didn’t break any laws. In fact, he observed them.

After Chernobyl, the Supreme Soviet passed a law that requires – not allows, but requires – all citizens to bring grave dangers to human health to the public’s attention. Alexander did exactly that, and landed in the KGB jail in St. Petersburg. The Russian navy couldn’t fire him any more, so they decided to set an example.

The slow pace of the investigation indicates the FSB, the unreformed successor to the KGB, is aware they don’t have a case. But by making Alexander’s life difficult, they hope to discourage others from following in his footsteps. Alexander may never be brought to trial, yet the chilling effect his persecution has on others can set back the movement to clean up the nuclear Cold War legacy by decades. It already has slowed down Bellona’s work in helping to clean up the nuclear nightmare at Norway’s border considerably.

For that reason, Alexander’s case cannot end with a dismissal of the charges, or an acquittal in court. The tables must be turned. Righteous citizens of Russia must feel vindicated in defending the laws of their country without fear of reprisal from an overpowering state apparatus.

The Environmental Rights Center
Bellona plans to open an Environmental Rights Center in St. Petersburg, where environmentalists can find information about their rights, and legal support when things go bad. We are taking on the state, not to undermine the law, but to force those in power to abide by their own rules.

But wait. Bellona is a small organization. When compared to the Russian state, Bellona is minuscule. Can we swallow the bite we took?

No! We need all the help we can get chewing. The beginning has been encouraging. It is a great challenge to be at the forefront in changing the way environmentalism works. We have worked the U.S. Congress – maybe the only institution that really has enough influence on Russia to foster change. In the process, we have made friends at the most obvious as well as the most unlikely places.

Senator Ted Kennedy, one of the more left-wing (by American standards) politicians has supported Alexander Nikitin as faithfully as Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaskan on the right wing of the Republican (conservative) party. And there is support all through the center, in between Senators Kennedy and Stevens. Bellona support letters receive dozens of signatures, from politicians interested in the environment, human rights, disarmament, political change in the former Soviet states, democratization, you name it.

Amnesty International has adopted Alexander, and Human Rights Watch is actively pursuing the case from its Moscow office. The Sierra Club, one of America’s oldest and biggest environmental groups, now has a human rights division, which supports Alexander through its volunteers all across the country.

Powerful think-tanks, groups that hire the finest academics in the world to research topics of global interest, are interested in Alexander, and in the environment as a national security issue in general.

Over all the attention, Bellona USA recently realized that our fax list includes all kinds of organizations, but no environmental ones. We will correct that oversight, when we have the time.

All this serves to show that environmentalism isn’t about hugging trees alone. The new environmentalism needs to forge and maintain coalitions, because protecting the environment in which you live is a human right. And where the law guarantees you a right to a clean environment, demanding that these laws be enforced becomes a democratic right as well.

If you look at history, you will find that today’s word is changing faster in a week than it used to change in decades just half a century back. Yet there are a few things, we can safely predict will stay with us for eons. But there are some. One is that we will need air to breathe and water to drink, wherever technology goes. Another is that a radioactive cloud does us no good.

If we agree on this, the environment and human rights converge. We, the environmentalists, thank you for adopting Alexander as one of yours. We vow to pay you back our debt – every clean breath you take, every sip of water you drink, and every time you stand in awe before a patch of nature unspoiled.

Thomas Jandl is Bellona’s USA director.
You can reach Bellona USA at:
P.O. Box 11835
Washington, D.C. 20008
Tel.: (202) 363-6810
Fax: (202) 363-9873