Dutch Caribbeans to sue Netherlands for climate crisis failure
A group of Bonaire residents threaten to sue the Dutch government for failing to protect the island from climate change.
Danique Martis lives on Bonaire, a Caribbean island that attracts tens of thousands of divers every year to its teeming coral reefs.
Speaking to Al Jazeera after several days of extreme heat, she said, “I have two very cute goats and they were overheating. I’m overheating, and my boyfriend’s overheating. It’s a level of heat I haven’t experienced very often here.”
It is just one clear sign of the effects of climate change being experienced by the island’s population, alongside flooding and increases in vector-borne disease.
That is why a group of seven people, most of whom still live on Bonaire and all of whom are Dutch citizens, have joined Greenpeace in threatening to sue the Netherlands government for breaching their human rights by contributing to global carbon emissions and failing to protect them from the consequences.
Martis, a 24-year-old social worker who helps support refugees on the island, first became involved with Greenpeace because of her love of nature and conservation.
When the NGO approached her about being a plaintiff in a new lawsuit, she readily agreed.
“It’s very important that there is awareness and accountability from the Netherlands to rectify what was done wrong. I thought about it for like a second and then thought, ‘Yes, this is something I can stand behind’,” Martis said.
In May, the group sent a pre-litigation letter to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, asking him to toughen the country’s climate target so that it reaches net-zero emissions 2040; its current goal is to cut emissions by 95 percent by 2050.
They also want the government to fund adaptation costs on Bonaire.
Bonaire has been a Dutch special municipality since 2010. But the Netherlands has been present on the island for about 400 years and recently apologised for enslaving its people.
Martis believed that, to a certain extent, the Dutch government has forgotten about the islands.
“We chose to be under them, however, we did not choose to be forgotten. There’s so many things that they still have to take accountability for,” she said.
Martis said there was awareness about the risks of climate change on the island, but the high level of poverty meant many people were too focused on day-to-day survival to make it a priority.
“I’m not sure how many people have realised that climate and poverty walk the same line,” she said.
Margaretha Wewerinke-Singh, associate professor of sustainability law at the University of Amsterdam, said that there was a wealth of information about the risks of climate change in mainland Netherlands, but the country has done little to study and protect its most vulnerable territories.
“It is in that sense also very much a discrimination case,” she said.
To fill in this evidence gap, Greenpeace commissioned researchers at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam to examine how climate change would affect Bonaire.
The research showed that sea level rise was likely to permanently submerge parts of the island by 2050, a problem exacerbated by the loss of coral reefs as a natural buffer as the oceans warm up and acidify.
Climate change will exacerbate health problems on Bonaire and could ruin its cultural heritage. Flooding, storms and the loss of tourism as the corals die out are also expected to hit the island’s economy.
Together with Greenpeace and a team of lawyers, the Bonaire plaintiffs were heavily involved in figuring out what to put in their legal challenge.
“We have made agreements about our individual roles and how we want to work together,” said Eefje de Kroon, climate justice expert at Greenpeace Netherlands.
“We also actively involve other people from the island, people from the Caribbean part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and civil society,” she said.
“It really was a joint effort,” Martis agreed.
It was important to the group that the government be required to fund adaptation programmes because the island is so vulnerable.
The university study identified a number of potential strategies for doing this, including conservation of coral reefs and restoration of coastal vegetation.
But mitigating the problem was also vital. “If they don’t stop partially causing climate change, we’re mopping with the tap open,” said Martis.
In a statement, the Dutch government said it was clear that more action had to be taken quickly to protect the inhabitants of Bonaire and its unique nature from the consequences of climate change.
It recently announced a funding boost and special measures to make it easier for the island to access existing energy transition and economic subsidies.
But this is unlikely to satisfy the plaintiffs, who have given the government until the end of September to come to an agreement with them.
Martis sincerely hoped that the case would not end up in court.
“That would mean that the Netherlands has taken accountability and they have come up with a plan that we find satisfactory on both accounts.”
If the Netherlands does not, however, she and the rest of the group are prepared to file a formal legal challenge and stand trial.
The case is likely to lead to legal arguments about whether climate and human rights treaties apply to overseas territories.
But it is part of a wave of climate litigation taking place across the world, and many of these cases are succeeding.
Weweinke-Singh pointed to previous landmark court rulings on climate change in the Netherlands against the Dutch government and Shell.
“The duty of care is very, very well established.”
Nor is it the only lawsuit challenging big polluters on their responsibilities overseas.
On June 5, hearings will begin in the Torres Strait Islands against the Australian government over its accountability for the climate crisis and obligations to Indigenous communities.
“This case [against the Netherlands] is an example of how a community from the global majority can enforce its rights against European governments failing to take necessary action to mitigate and protect against environmental disaster,” said Nani Jansen Reventlow, a lawyer and founder of NGO Systemic Justice.
“Cases like this send a message to any government that has partaken in colonial extraction that there will be a reckoning.”