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NGOs able to enact legal measures on environmental violation

China’s newly revised Environmental Protection Law came into effect on Jan 1. The revision gives NGOs in China the legal status required to take legal action against polluters. Already it has helped to launch the very first suit.

On Jan 1, Beijing-based non-governmental organization Friends of Nature filed a lawsuit against unauthorized quarrying activities for ecological damages in Nanping located in the eastern province of Fujian.

Local courts accepted the case a week after the NGO launched the lawsuit, and many consider this a milestone for China’s efforts at environmental action.

Previously it would be difficult to bring such a case to court, as it is unclear who is actually entitled to enact legal action.

“Although the amended Civil Procedure Law allows related organizations to sue polluters, courts often refused to accept the cases because the provisions were vague. But the newly revised Environmental Protection Law has specified the requirements for NGOs in bringing others to court. The revision regulates the environmental pro bono litigations, so more and more organizations like us are hence eligible to launch pro bono lawsuits with legal support,” says Ge Feng, team director of Friends of Nature.

The new law adopted last year took effect the first day of 2015 which allowed qualified NGOs to sue polluters. Up till then in China, environmental disputes were mainly resolved through administrative means rather than in the courts.

Facing difficulty for NGOs in making their efforts to bring justice in the past were the bitterly long court proceedings.

The new law has laid the foundation for pro bono lawsuits, but NGOs still face uphill challenges in terms of pulling the resources necessary to carry them out.

“An environmental case requires professional knowledge and lots of time and money. We have established a special fund to help us and other NGOs take legal action. But it still requires a lot more money to finish a whole case from litigation to final verdict. So we hope more social funds will be provided to help us. We have also built up a legal support network for NGOs to get professional help from legal experts,” Ge says.

China has more than 560,000 licensed NGOs, among which about 7,000 are registered as groups campaigning on behalf of the environment.

Under the new law, one-tenth of them are now eligible to file pro bono lawsuits. The revision of the law is regarded as a significant change since it was first introduced in 1989.

Ma Yong, deputy director of All-China Environment Federation however believes it’s just a beginning.

“The revision has only solved the problem of litigation threshold which is actually elementary. Now what is lying ahead of us are questions of how NGOs should launch lawsuits, obtain evidences, evaluate damage, and how courts should hear cases, enforce verdicts, entitle damage fees. More importantly, we need to find a balance between environmental protection and development to ease protectionism from local governments,” Ma says.

It’s a message echoed by Friends of Nature.

“My biggest concern is that the Nanping litigation case cannot be replicated in other places in China. Fujian province has a sound litigation mechanism on environmental violation issues where lawsuits of such kind are encouraged by local governments. But things could be different and difficult in other places,” Ge says.

Indeed, giving NGOs the legal status to file pro bono lawsuits is a big step forward, but far from a cure for problems such as weak law enforcement, large litigation cost, lack of professional NGO personnel, and so on. So, joint efforts from all social sectors are necessary to not only ensure that related laws can be well drafted or revised, but also give an assurance that NGOs’ legal rights are protected, and verdicts can be well exercised.