Najib Saab 2/4/2023

An environment minister once told me: “We are the Ministry of Environment, so we don’t deal in politics.” I immediately realized that his ministry would not succeed in making any serious progress, because the ministry is indeed a political entity, whose mission is to set legislation and laws that protect the environment, to integrate the environmental dimension within the scope of work of all ministries, to press for a sufficient share of funding for environment within allocated budgets, and to convince the rest of the cabinet members of the validity of its demands. It also has to ensure that its projects are approved in parliament, in addition to managing international and bilateral negotiations related to all sorts of environmental and climate affairs. All of these matters require political management at the highest level.

The minister’s comment reminded me of those who use the term “politicization” in the form of a disgraceful accusation against anyone who opposes their views, as if politics is a shameful practice, or one that only a select elite is entitled to be involved in, who essentially agree with the views of those monopolizing the right of classification. Whereas politics, in its proper sense, should be the art of achieving the general national interests. It is an acquired right for people to demand their basic rights, and fight for the rule of law and public order to override any other authority, including the right to participate in major national decisions, of which those related to the environment are an essential part and parcel.

Similar to the ministers of environment that disavow politics are those parties whose name includes “environment” or “the greens”, and whose goals are limited to slogans such as afforestation, fighting pollution and cleaning beaches. The “party” is a political entity par excellence, otherwise it would become a civil association. The goal of every serious party should be to reach political power, which requires that it be ready for the task, through a comprehensive platform. This platform includes plans for economic, social, educational, scientific, industrial, agricultural, health and cultural policies, in addition to those directly related to environmental issues. It must have a clear vision of international relations, which allows for a better understanding of everything that affects development, the environment and the climate. So why insist on naming a specific group a party, if its principles and objectives are even less than those of a charitable association? What is the harm in calling it an association? Or is being a “party” of higher status and more prestigious?

NGOs specialized in raising awareness or offering social assistance have the right to distance themselves from politics. But, in some cases, they may have to deal with political affairs related to their work, and this is not a crime if done transparently. An association boycotting a corrupt political system and refusing to deal with it, in order to preserve people’s rights and ensure that aid reaches them and not only those whom the corrupt authority approves of, is a political stance of a humane nature, and thus is not an option but rather the duty of all those involved in public affairs.

Environmental associations that content themselves with beach clean-up campaigns or removing waste from the streets, while avoiding to pressure political officials in order to pass and implement deterring laws that prevent pollution in the first place, are failing in their basic duty, under the pretext of not engaging in politics. They also condemn themselves to failure, and keep their activities within the framework of promotional events. Worse are those who provide funding for such theatrical acts under the pretense of environmental activism.

One of the most sincere and honest personalities among those who took over a ministry of environment in the Arab region tried to cover up the inability to pass appropriate laws and enforce their implementation, by going personally to the streets and confronting violators, whether they were littering or driving cars with high emissions, and in some cases had an accompanying policeman to arrest them. However, these initiatives, despite the noble intention to set a good example, remained individual measures of limited benefit, in the absence of explicit and deterring laws that impose financial fines and issue jail sentences to violators. Despite the good intentions and gentle manners of this minister, the situation has worsened, twenty years after the street stunts, in the absence of political will and action. This experience continues to be repeated in various forms by sincere ministers with a passion for the environment, who go to streets and beaches to participate in cleaning campaigns, and up to the mountains to participate in planting trees, with temporary and localized effect, in the absence of a political will which can be translated into laws.

Let us leave NGOs to carry out their noble voluntary work without pressures and domination attempts, and demand that environment ministries play their role as political bodies that draw up their plans based on science. A ministry that acts as a civil association is doomed to fail, because the task of public officials is to find solutions, not to complain to the people as if they were a wailing wall.