The Verdict

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Judges: Marianne Thieme, Eva Rovers, Mert Kumru

The questions before us today are threefold:

  1. Are the plaintiffs who claim to speak on behalf of the trees admissible in this lawsuit?

  2. If so, has it been made sufficiently plausible that the trees in Amstelpark have suffered serious damage from human activities?

  3. Does this damage imply a violation of the rights of nature and those of the trees in particular?

The subject of the case before us is not only the ecosystem of this park but also the ecosystem of our democracy. Like this park, democracy is constantly evolving. Like this park, democracy needs different elements working together and pollinating each other. And like this park, democracy seemed to be in the early stages of maturity. However, recent inspection shows that Dutch democracy is still in the adolescent stage. Anyway, this case shows that the democratic ecosystem still has plenty of room to grow and flourish. Indeed, this case raises the question of what has a voice in a democracy, not just who.

The question of who has a voice and who has what rights have been part of the earliest development of the current democratic ecosystem. Although the 1848 constitution stipulated that the right to vote was for "adult residents, in full enjoyment of civil and citizenship rights", in practice this meant that only a few had a vote: only men with sufficient capital. It would take until 1919 when women were given a vote. It would take until 1956 before women in the Netherlands were given the same rights as men and thus became an equal element in the democratic ecosystem.

Now it is time for the next phase of development. For just as democracy did not protect the voice and rights of women, it does not protect the voice and rights of nature to this day.

This case shows how we can take democracy to the next stage, namely by granting rights to nature and giving it a voice in democratic decision-making. This can be done, for example, by not only electing people's representatives but also nature's representatives. Or by designating a seat for nature in decision-making spaces. Or what about citizens' councils, which are now being carefully initiated in the Netherlands? These groups of elected residents discuss and decide together on complex social problems. The participants in citizens' councils could also take turns to give nature a voice, thus taking part in discussions and co-decisions on behalf of nature.

By enriching the democratic ecosystem with nature, it will finally be able to reach maturity. Only this maturity will give democracy the necessary wisdom and strength to withstand the challenges of this century.

The judicial panel, therefore, declares the plea of the tree's representatives admissible.

The question of damages suffered.

The plaintiffs have sought to demonstrate through scientific research how and in what way the trees have suffered from human activities. In addition, human witnesses have sought to make visible what the damage means to the quality of life for the trees.

The judicial panel recognises that these interpretations of the voice of the trees can be characterised as anthropomorphisation, as also suggested by the Respondent. However, these interpretations are based on the most recent scientific insights regarding the life of trees. Reference can be made to, among others, the Wood Wide Web research by Canadian biologist Susanne Simard. This shows that trees are oriented towards life and coexistence, and in search of harmony with the environment. The judicial panel finds that the claimants have conclusively proved that there is damage to the trees. Given that the Respondent has not challenged the evidence of the damage suffered, this is now conclusively established before the judicial panel.

To conclude on this point, the judicial panel is prepared to go along with the Claimants' reasoning that the interests of trees, both as organisms with their own intrinsic value separate from their utility to other living beings or organisms, as well as the importance of trees to the ecosystem as a whole must be taken into account.

The judicial panel, therefore, finds that the trees have suffered serious damage and their interests have been harmed as a result.

This brings the judicial panel to the question of to what extent these interests are already contained in recognised rights for nature, the third issue before it.

The claimants have pointed to developments outside the Netherlands. For this international law comparison, I would like to give the floor to Mert Kumru.

Special rights belonging to nature are not yet recognised in our national law. As a result, we as a country are behind the times globally and risk getting stuck in an already outdated notion of nature in relation to the law. Once upon a time, our country was at the forefront of climate and environmental issues. Institutions like Waternet, which have been in charge of water management since the 13th century, are one of a kind. It was understood even then that if we want to continue living in harmony with nature, we cannot continue to afford to wait passively. For this reason, this Panel believes that we should also adopt a climate-adaptive approach to law.

Unlawful conduct by the Dutch state was the basis for assuming state liability in the URGENDA judgment. This created a special precedent for the (inter-)national legal order. Never before had a court ordered a state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with signed treaties. The legal basis of this case rested on the fact that the provisions originating from the ECHR, force the Dutch state to comply with a positive obligation to respect human rights. The judicial panel believes that the same line from the URGENDA judgment should be used and concludes that, in line with the 1993 UN Biodiversity Convention, the Dutch state has a positive obligation to monitor biodiversity. Such monitoring comes into its own when society recognises and legally enshrines nature's rights.

Our country is in a unique location in several respects. Not only are we the country that will be one of the first to be affected by the climate crisis, but we are also the country where other UN member states will be seeking their climate justice at the International Court of Justice in the coming years. Currently, Vanuatu is seeking an advisory opinion from this court on the impact of the climate crisis on our human rights. The rights of nature cannot yet be considered in this, as we have not yet recognised them globally. Global recognition follows through recognition and repetition.

Final conclusion: do trees have rights and have they been violated?

This Judicial Panel considers it of utmost importance that the Netherlands' legal development remains in line with the very latest legal insights regarding the question of which parties can be bearers of rights. Moreover, current nature and environmental legislation is already founded on the protectability of nature and the environment. This legislation forms the basis for further legal development and further interpretation of the legislator's intent.

The judicial panel agrees with the claimants that a comparison can be made with the way human rights are enshrined and guaranteed. This system can serve as a model for granting rights to nature. The judicial panel can go along with the Respondent's argument to the extent that trees communicate differently from humans when formulating rights for nature, just as when formulating rights for animals, their own nature and species-specific interests should be guiding, and that adopting human rights 1-to-1 may result in a lack of protection or in granting rights that trees do not benefit from as much. However, the defendant, like many rain advocates, makes a caricature of rights for nature. Common examples are whether this then means that a tree or an animal should be granted the right to education or freedom of religion. The judicial panel does not go along with this.

On the question of the extent to which nature, or trees, can be subjects of law, the judicial panel notes that it is important to keep in mind that the development and recognition of rights for nature are still in their infancy. However, it is clear that nature in general and trees, in particular, are increasingly being accorded moral status by society. Last week, therefore, The Guardian headlined that calls for giving nature rights are growing louder. The judicial panel also takes into consideration that there is also growing social support for including animal rights in the constitution, as evidenced by the fact that a party for animals has been represented in the Dutch parliament since 2006, with sister parties in 20 other countries.

Moreover, it is no longer justifiable that a legal entity such as a company or an organisation is given legal personality with the corresponding legal protection, while living organisms other than humans, which moreover make up 99% of the biomass, have only the status of a thing.

It is evident that there may need to be further distinctions in legal development between those organisms living in the wild, and those living in a park or other human-constructed environment. Reference can be made to the distinction made by Canadian philosopher Will Kymlicka in his work Zoopolis. A Political Theory of Animal Rights from 2014. Animals living in a city or village, such as domestic and farm animals, should be seen as fellow citizens. Animals living in the wild, according to Kymlicka, can be considered residents of another country. The reasoning behind it is to take into account different human-animal relationships, each of which calls for a specific legal consideration framework.

In the case of the trees in Amsterdam's Amstelpark, the judicial panel believes that the rights of these trees have been seriously harmed over the past 50 years by the many simultaneous human activities taking place near the trees. Because the Amsterdammer lives intensively with these trees, there is a special responsibility for the ups and downs of these organisms, from root to leaf. All the more so because the animals that depend on these trees can be considered our fellow citizens. The animals and trees of the Amstelpark are fellow Amsterdammers one might say with Kymlicka.

In the legal system, rights are normally counterbalanced by duties. To what extent this must or can apply to nature is not up for assessment. However, a comparison can be sought with the current children's rights system or the protection of people with mental disabilities.

The judicial panel is of the opinion that the trees should be able to rely on the protection of their interests because they have intrinsic value and can therefore be seen as objects of law.

The ruling reads as follows:

The judicial panel finds in favour of the plaintiffs and orders:

  • The municipal, provincial and central government to include in the entire process of granting permits, monitoring and enforcing health and nuisance standards the rights of the trees of the Amstelpark and the interests, health and adequate living conditions of the trees in general, the specific requirements for and interests of certain species and the living conditions of roots, trunks, leaves and sap; and

  • That the protection of the right of trees to a clean, healthy and sustainable living environment in conjunction and connection with the rest of nature, including people, must be paramount.

Order the State to pay the costs of these proceedings, to be paid within fourteen days after the date of the judgment to be given in this case and against proper evidence of discharge, including lawyers' fees and out-of-pocket expenses, to be increased by the post-litigation costs at the liquidation rate, with a stipulation that statutory interest shall be due on the order to pay the costs if this order has not been complied with within fourteen days after the date of the judgment to be given in this case.