Le Monde | Editorial Translated by Leslie Thatcher of Truthout 1/17/08

In expectation of possible appeals, nothing yet guarantees that the Paris High Court’s judgment in the Erika affair will become established precedent. But we must hope that it does. In fact – eight years after the shipwreck of that oil tanker and the black tide it caused on the coasts of Brittany – at the conclusion of endless proceedings and trial, all the actors in this catastrophe have been jointly – and soundly – condemned for the “environmental damage” they’ve done. And, in particular, the oil company Total, accused of “negligence.”

The first trial ever held in France over an oil spill consequently launches an important advance in case law. That’s obviously a good thing, given how the cynicism of the “sea thugs” (to Jacques Chirac’s now-famous expression) has thrived forever on the opacity of maritime transport rules and the very broad impunity they assured its actors.

The Paris court’s judgment comprises, in fact, two decisive innovations. For the first time, damage resulting from “an outrage to the environment” has been recognized by the law. The Environmental Charter adopted in 2005 and annexed to the French Constitution had established the principle according to which “any person must pay for the repair of damages he causes to the environment.” The January 16 judgment draws practical conclusions from this clause, without allowing itself to be paralyzed by the quarrels over definitions of damage and responsibility that have prevailed up until now.

The second “breakthrough” the Paris court realized specifically concerns responsibility. By condemning all the actors in this matter – from the Total charterer to the tanker’s technical manager, including the owner and the classification company that had delivered the tanker’s seaworthiness certificate – it avoids allowing itself to get stuck in the meanders of international regulations expressly designed to dilute each party’s obligations. With a consequence that should be salutary: if the polluter-pays principle applies to everyone from now on, we may hope that that will seriously accelerate the implementation of rules – especially European rules – designed to prevent accidents.

Of course, some people will not fail to point out the risks of this kind of ecological justice and the all-out responsibility that it could put into play tomorrow: doesn’t every human activity – industrial, agricultural and touristic, for example – harm nature in one way or another? At this point, however, the objection cannot hold, given how unjust the balance of power has been up until now between polluters and their victims.

Translation: Truthout French language editor Leslie Thatcher.