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Environmental NGO Zelena akcija / Friends of the Earth Croatia has been fighting for years against the installation of a golf resort development in Srđ hill, due to the irreversible damage it would cause in Dubrovnik, Croatia, on the Adriatic Sea, listed on UNESCO´s World Heritage Sites. Based on binational treaties, the company is suing the State and Zelena akcija / Friends of the Earth Croatia for an amount that could force the organization to close down.
“One of the reasons why they initiated legal proceedings against us was to frighten us off, for us to give up the fight against this monstrous project”, said Enes Ćerimagić, lawyer and Vice President of FoE Croatia, in an interview with Real World Radio.
In September 2017, Croatian company Razvoj golf (subsidiary of Elitech, based in the Netherlands) sued the Croatian government for €500 million and it is also seeking around 30,000 Euros in damages from Zelena akcija/Friends of the Earth Croatia. The lawsuit against the NGO goes beyond economic compensation: they investors are also seeking a court order to prevent Zelena Akcija/Friends of the Earth Croatia from speaking publicly about the project.
“Local activists have been fighting for the preservation of Srđ hill - and an area behind it 20 times the size of the old city in Dubrovnik - since 2006” states a press release issued by Friends of the Earth Europe on February 12th. In 2010, Zelena akcija and the national ’Right to the City’ movement created the initiative Srđ je naš (Srđ is ours).
At the expense of the people
The population of Dubrovnik opposes the project: “in a 2013 referendum organized by Srđ je naš, 84% of local residents who voted came out against it. While the turnout was lower than would have been needed for the referendum to be binding, it was a clear demonstration of public discontent”, adds the press release.
“This golf resort development would devour natural resources, primarily water, it would also increase pesticide use and it would use the last remaining free space for the development of the city of Dubrovnik”, said Ćerimagić.
The lawyer added that “People are hugely against this project because they do not want this huge real-estate development inside their city, they don´t want a gated community because this would add to the social stratification of the city, it would completely change the face of Dubrovnik.”
But in addition to the damage to the environment and the development of the city, according to information available, “the infrastructure needed for this project would be paid by the citizens”, said Ćerimagić, who considered that this situation is “simply unacceptable”.
Pressure against the State
After legal complaints by Srđ je naš, an annulment of a 2006 decision to triple the size of the project - from 100 to 310 hectares was secured in 2014. “However, when the decision was finally made, it was simply ignored by the official responsible, the Dubrovnik-Neretva county chief”, states the press release.
The second legal victory came in September 2016, when an environmental permit granted to the project in 2013 was overturned. This was followed a few months later, in February 2017, by the annulment of a location permit.
But in September 2017, the investors filed a €500 million ISDS claim against the Republic of Croatia because the "state [had taken] away their development licenses". In the statement, Friends of the Earth Europe explains that “The claim was made through the Croatia-Netherlands bilateral trade deal, which allows investors to sue states for ruling in the public interest, if they feel their profits may be harmed”, but they add that “these licenses were not taken away, but annulled in a judicial procedure, in which they took part”.
The tactics of the company “seem to be working”, states the press release: “Just five weeks after the arbitration claim was filed, the state issued a new environmental permit, followed soon after by a new location permit. In doing this, the state ignored the ruling of its own court, which gave specific instructions on how to properly assess whether a project is environmentally acceptable or not. The new decision was based entirely on the old documents, meaning the ’new’ Environmental permit was simply a copy of the original which had been overturned by the court”.
The case is just another example of the pressure exerted by transnational companies against the States in the framework of international arbitration courts that usually rule in favor of companies. “When this happens, States are stripped of any real political force to protect the environment and to protect its citizens, and this is happening in our case as well”, explained Ćerimagić.
Environmental activists taken to court
“We are continuing our fight against this project. A few weeks ago we submitted two new lawsuits in courts of law against the new permits”, said Ćerimagić. He also stated that as in the past the NGO succeeding with its complaints, “we think we stand good chances of winning these legal fights again, because basically the texts of the case have not changed over the course of the year”, he added.
About the potential court order that would prevent them from talking about the project, he said that “it is completely unacceptable, and it goes against any democratic standards in modern countries”.
“If a court would decide to ban us from publically speaking about this project, that would be a very dangerous precedent, not only for Friends of the Earth Croatia but for freedom of speech in Croatia in general”, highlighted Ćerimagić. The lawyer also warned that “there is a pattern that is repeating in every part of the world, and it is increasingly becoming popular for investors to sue environmental activists. We think that this is unacceptable”, he concluded.
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