August 3, 2009—Investigators and prosecutors from nine countries on the Mediterranean coast joined forces recently to step up the fight against marine pollution.
The Mediterranean Network of Prosecutors’ inaugural meeting in the World Bank’s office in Marseilles, France, launched in June a new effort to encourage enforcement of environmental laws and treaties designed to prevent pollution from ships, aircraft and land-based sources.
The event was sponsored by the World Bank, through its Mediterranean Environmental Technical Assistance Program (METAP) and organized in collaboration with the French Ministry of Justice, with the support of the International Development Law Organization. It drew participants from Algeria, Egypt, Spain, France, Italy, Malta, Morocco, Tunisia and Lebanon.
The network’s main goals are to promote regional cooperation and to operationalize provisions in existing treaties.
“A lot of attention has been put on legal instruments. Right now the urgency is to start working together to make sure these laws serve a purpose and are actually implemented,” says Dominique Bichara, a World Bank senior counsel working on Eastern Europe, the Middle-East and North Africa.
Fifteen years ago, very few Mediterranean countries put much effort into the preservation of coastal zones. Today, all have environmental agencies and ministries, as well as environmental laws, thanks in part to the efforts of METAP.
But enforcement of environmental law is uneven around the Mediterranean, with judges, prosecutors and investigators often lacking training and experience as well as the critical capacity and equipment to handle increasingly complex cases. They may not always have the instruments to actually discourage people from discharging into the sea. This limits efforts to protect the biodiversity of the Mediterranean. In the absence of a very strong judiciary and prosecution and investigation services, the polluters will just keep discharging in waters and look for areas where they can do so, says Bichara.
The prosecutors’ network will make it easier for investigators and prosecutors around the Mediterranean to work together to enforce international legal instruments through sharing of experience and best practices.
The network, which will hold meetings yearly, can also help create an alert system to warn of oil spills and other disasters.
Ultimately, the group could play a role in harmonizing sanctions and procedures throughout the Mediterranean, to eliminate “safe havens” for polluters.
“Clearly, there is a very strong momentum to talk about these issues right now and accelerate action to preserve the biodiversity of the Mediterranean. Network members now have a face, phone number, and contacts. And we really hope we can have other countries on board,” says Bichara.
The Mediterranean is one of the most bio-diverse environments in the world, but it is subject to increasing pressures as the region’s population grows
> More than 400 million people live in 22 countries bordering on the Mediterranean, with some 143 million on the coast.
> About 80 percent of the Mediterranean’s marine pollution is land-based, estimates a 2008 study (PDF) by the European Commission and European Investment Bank.
> More than half of the urban areas on the coast with a population over 100,000 do not have waste-water treatment plants and discharge 60 percent of their wastewater directly into the sea, says the study.
> Oil spills are also a problem, with 469 incidents recorded since 1977 in the Regional Marine Pollution Emergency Response Centre for the Mediterranean Sea (REMPEC) database.