Within another ten months, the presidency of George Vella will have come to and end. His enthusiasm for a Constitutional Convention, so far, did not lead to any known tangible results. Covid-19, definitely did not help.
The debate of entrenching environmental protection in the Constitution, thereby reducing or completely removing governmental discretion as to when it can act, is healthy. It signifies recognition that we cannot trust the executive with exercising reasonable discretion, as it has not to date been reasonable in the way it has acted on environmental stewardship.
Let us start at the very beginning. Our Constitution, in its second chapter, contains declaratory provisions which establish a number of basic objectives of government, amongst which the environmental objectives to be attained. The environmental objectives, which were amplified in a recent amendment to the Constitution, moved by then Environment Minister José Herrera, are, in terms of the Constitution itself, fundamental to the governance of the country. They cannot, however, be enforced in a Court of Law. This means that in practice these environmental provisions of the Constitution are for all intents and purposes a dead letter. They need to be enforceable, the soonest, as my party has repeatedly emphasised both in its electoral manifesto in various elections as well as in its submissions to the now stalled Constitutional Convention.
It is now being suggested by the PN that the environment should be a human right entrenched in the Constitution. What does this mean? I think that what has been stated so far is a wrong choice of words. The environment cannot be and is not a human right. What they most probably mean is that access to a protected environment should be a guaranteed human right. This is a tall order and it signifies that the PN has to reverse a substantial number of its policies in order to be credible: first on the list it needs to reverse its commitment to the 2006 rationalisation plan for consistency. We will wait and see what they really have in mind.
Environmental protection in the Constitution should, in my view, mean ensuring that humans respect the eco-system of which, together with plants and other animals we all form part. It should mean protection of biodiversity, both fauna and flora as well as their habitats. It should also signify the protection of the aquifer as this is not and should not be considered as private property. It also signifies a recognition of the national value of historical heritage.
Unfortunately, the Constitution emphasises in the minutest of details the need to protect private property but then it ignores the significance and the intrinsic value of the eco-system of which we form part and which belongs to all of us.
Reference to the natural environment in the Constitution should be eco-centric and not anthropocentric. This means that when considering the environment, the Constitution should deal with the protection of the rights of nature and not human rights. It is about time that we should start thinking about the rights of nature and link this with the rights of future generations who have a right to breathe unpolluted air and drink unpolluted water and enjoy nature in all its aspects. This is our common heritage and we should handle it with care.
Environmental references in our Constitution should ensure that after years of preaching sustainability we can, maybe, translate our beliefs into legal tools in order that governments are bound to implement sustainable policies.
As things stand the Constitution provides guiding principles when dealing with environmental issues. This has proven to be insufficient as none of the Maltese governments since 1964 has acted in accordance with this constitutional guidance.
If we are to learn anything from the current mess it is that the way forward is to spell out clear environmental objectives which tie the hands of governments.
Greening the Constitution could be a first step in bring our house in order. At the end of the day, however, the Courts must be in a position to be able to instruct government to carry out its duty when it has failed to do so.
published on The Malta Independent on Sunday: 4 June 2023