Interview: Jasper Teulings, General Counsel of Greenpeace International

The Attic recently spoke with Jasper Teulings, general counsel of Greenpeace International in Amsterdam. With a team of 10 lawyers spread across the world, Jasper Teulings takes on immense legal challenges that combine not only legal expertise but something rarely seen in the private sector – a will to break down silos between NGOs, the public and academia to foster active collaboration on topics that affect us all. Here he gives us a fascinating in-depth insight into working in the nonprofit sector at the most famous name in environmental conservation.

Tell us about the legal department of Greenpeace…

I manage a team of 10 lawyers at Greenpeace International, the international coordinating body for the global Greenpeace network, with independent national or regional offices covering 55 countries.

My team comprises of a number of specialists with expertise on international law, maritime law, human rights, media law, and Dutch law (as we are based in the Netherlands). We provide legal services to Greenpeace International first and foremost at a strategic and operational level, and we also provide legal support to our national offices at a strategic level. Less than half of these offices have some form of in-house legal capacity but we collaborate with them frequently, or with the national office’s external counsel, and with pro bono firms and law clinics. As general counsel I support the team and focus on key risks and opportunities. The team works on the full spectrum of legal work conceivable in the NGO sector.

What’s a typical day like?

It’s typical that there isn’t a typical day! Our work falls into three key areas, which we have named Sword, Shield and Armour: which translates as strategic litigation, strategic defense and organisational legal support respectively. The first two are rather Greenpeace-specific and the last one is what one would expect from an in-house legal function anywhere. The work is truly global.

#1 Strategic litigation – Sword

This is the most important aspect of our work. You could find us developing a legal case to protect the Amazon against destructive industries, or organising a case conference on climate litigation. Most of our strategic litigation work is in the realm of climate litigation, supporting our local Greenpeace organisations and their allies.

For instance recently, Greenpeace Netherlands joined a case brought by Friends of the Earth against Shell in which the court is asked to make Shell align with the Paris climate agreement. You could also find us filing a securities complaint against the lack of disclosure of climate risk in relation to a coal plant or oil pipeline, or we could be discussing the fiduciary duties of pension funds to divest from fossil fuel. It’s an incredibly dynamic field we’re fortunate enough to be at the forefront of, in support of our society’s much needed transition to renewable energy.

#2 Strategic defense – Shield

In terms of strategic defense, you would see us engaging with a case in Strasbourg in front of the European Court of Human Rights. We have one case pending at this instance, on behalf of the 28 activists and two freelance journalists who were unlawfully arrested and detained by Russia following a peaceful protest against oil drilling in the Arctic waters.

We could be working with allies and academics, on a general comment of the article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on freedom of assembly together with allies – that’s more legal advocacy work. Or we are managing pending litigation against us. We have two rather bizarre cases in the US based on the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, one brought by Resolute Forest Products (read more about it here), a logging company in Canada, and another one by Energy Transfer, an oil company from Texas. Both companies were represented by Trump’s go-to law firm, who argued Greenpeace’s environmental advocacy amounts to a criminal enterprise. To be clear: both cases relate to pure speech activities (reports, tweets etc.), and both lack any form of legal merit. As such they classify as Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) – a form of legal intimidation increasingly deployed by corporations against public watchdogs.

The first case was dismissed by a San Francisco court as a SLAPP on 22 January 2019 (for the second time) and the second was fully dismissed by a North Dakota court on 14 February 2019, which held that “donating to people whose cause you support does not create a RICO enterprise”. But we don’t expect we’ve seen the last of these bogus claims.

For us, it’s not just about ensuring we’ve got the best legal defense. These are PR attacks as much as they are legal attacks, and civil society needs to bolster its resilience against them. We are therefore a founding member of a coalition of civil society actors in the US called Protect the Protest, which aims to build resilience against SLAPPs. In that coalition, we partner with EarthRights International, ACLU, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Freedom of the Press Foundation and many others.

#3 Legal support – Armour

In the context of our Armour work, some of my team members may be reviewing a contract, looking into compliance issues, or supporting colleagues at Greenpeace India against a barrage of bureaucratic attacks, which are a direct consequence of Greenpeace India’s campaigns to protect the climate and the forests. This is part of a broader attack on civic space in India, which has forced Greenpeace India to let go of part of its staff. Unfortunately, NGOs face increasing civic space constraints in many countries nowadays; there is degree of crisis management in dealing with these matters. We simultaneously have to fight for space to operate in countries with democratically-challenged governments, and deal with large corporations with vested interests abusing the legal system to suppress criticism. Those are fights I’d rather not have to fight. I would prefer to focus exclusively on advancing our environmental goals.

What’s your background?

Before joining Greenpeace International as general counsel in 2004, I was in private practice in the Netherlands for 10 years. After graduation from Amsterdam University and the University of Canterbury, I clerked at the Amsterdam Court of Appeals and then became a member of the Dutch Bar. I worked in various law firms in commercial litigation, civil litigation and media law, mostly representing media.

In addition to the work I do for Greenpeace International, I sit on the (Supervisory) Board of EarthRights International and SOMO, two NGOs whose work I really admire. And I am on the Advisory Board of the University of Amsterdam’s Law School. These roles enrich my views and allow me to share our experiences and networks as wide as possible. I also regularly give guest lectures at universities, something I really enjoy.

What about your team?

I am very fortunate to have an excellent team of specialists. Their expertise is tailored towards the needs of a global NGO: international law, human rights, environmental law, media law, maritime law, etc. They hold a range of nationalities and qualifications. A good number are members of US bars, and we have two UK barristers, and some Dutch-trained lawyers.

The people in my team are mostly based in Amsterdam, but also in Copenhagen and Colorado. Greenpeace International has around 250 staff, 100 of whom are based in Amsterdam. The global Greenpeace network has close to 4000 staff, based in one of the 27 independent National or Regional Offices, covering 55 countries. Fortunately, working globally nowadays is much easier. We have excellent video conferencing facilities, collaborative web-based tools and remote working facilities to keep our carbon footprint and expenses as low as possible.

What are your biggest challenges?

That has to be the urgency of the issues we deal with.

According to the most recent IPCC Report on Climate Change, the next decade is critical if we are to reach net zero emissions by 2050, which in turn is needed to keep global temperature rise within 1.5C. At the same time, we see biodiversity loss rapidly increasing. These are tremendous challenges for humanity. Strategic litigation can play a key role in supporting our campaigns against climate change and biodiversity loss. Fortunately, there is an increased appreciation for this work and we are hopeful that we will be able to expand opportunities in the near future.

How do you prepare for the future in the legal sector?

While we do use a lot of collaborative web-based tools, we don’t really use legal tech; not as much as legal departments in the commercial sector. It comes down to the fact that within my team there is no bulk work – it’s all tailor-made. The work we do is highly specialised work that requires independent assessment of each case or matter, and that’s what makes it exciting.

Our imperative is to keep identifying the best legal instruments and tactics to advance our organisation’s environmental goals. I encourage my team to actively build networks to help us in our work. They contribute to academic research, they publish, and they sit on other charities’ boards.

#1 Landmark Cases as Building Blocks

In our strategic litigation work, we try to create landmark cases that act as global building blocks to advance environmental and human rights interests. A significant climate change victory in one jurisdiction, while it does not have precedential value in the strictest sense elsewhere, often has significant moral authority in other jurisdictions. There’s a famous Philippines Supreme Court ruling – Oposa v Factoran – that recognises the rights of future generations. This landmark case has served as an inspiration in our own Norwegian constitutional challenge, and also in the famous Urgenda case in the Netherlands, as well as in pending climate cases in the US, such as Juliana v United States.

We try to identify such building blocks across the globe and see how they can be translated into local contexts and act as inspiration for judicial audacity. Where governments and corporations fail to meet their duty towards society and nature, courts intervene. For us as a legal team, identification and dissemination of these building blocks is an essential part of our work.

#2 Thinking Outside the NGO Box

We have seen a convergence of issues that requires us, as lawyers, to transcend traditional boundaries between environmental law and human rights. Climate change is increasingly seen as human rights issue. This allows us to strengthen bonds with other NGOs dealing with these issues. We are partnering with Amnesty when it comes to climate emergencies. On civic space, we work with NGOs that strengthen fundamental rights such as peaceful assembly and freedom of association. Breaking down the silos in the NGO sector is a highly-needed development and very welcome.

#3 Harnessing Support for Legal Action

The third axis of future development is how to harness the massive popular support for legal action. Over half a million people have supported our case against the Norwegian government and the recent case by Oxfam and Greenpeace against the French government generated over two million signatories in a couple of weeks. These are important indicators of public interest for the judiciary and politicians. How do you make that point come across – should these individuals become individual plaintiffs like Friends of the Earth has been doing? In the Norwegian case, we submitted the signatures of half a million people as evidence of popular support for our case – prompting the judiciary to take its duty and act where governments and corporations are failing to act.

How might Brexit impact the day-to-day running of Greenpeace International?

Greenpeace International is a Dutch foundation so the impact should be minimal. Two UK lawyers on my team are working from Amsterdam, but I gather from colleagues at UK-based NGOs that they are concerned about the potential disruption – they may at some point join the exodus of talent from the UK to the continent. On the broader political level, it’s a worrying sign of nationalism at a time when we need more multilateralism to address global problems. You simply cannot address these complex issues at a national level alone – international collaboration will always be key.

What does 2019 have in store for Greenpeace?

We expect a tidal wave of climate litigation, especially as there is a growing popular concern about the lack of public action, as an expression of the need to speed up the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. I expect this type of litigation to involve both governments and increasingly, corporations. More governments will be compelled to ramp up their regulatory efforts and more fossil fuel companies will face legal challenges regarding their long term strategies.

We are also expecting increased scrutiny of the fossil fuel industry from the financial sector. Is it still responsible to invest in fossil fuels? Are climate risks adequately disclosed as material risks? What is the role of the accounting sector, of rating agencies? Are they overstating the values of stocks of fossil fuel companies? It’s not just Greenpeace that’s looking at these issues. The Bank of England and other central banks have stated that climate change is a ‘mega risk’ and requires increased regulation of the banking and insurance sectors. The European Commission is setting the agenda on sustainable finance; we are monitoring developments closely.

What are the best things about working for the world’s most famous environmental advocates?

I’m in the enviable position to work with extremely smart and dedicated people. One of the huge advantages of working for Greenpeace is the ability to attract and retain incredible talent – it’s much easier than in commercial practice, even if the pay is incomparable. There are few legal jobs in the NGO sector and there is an overwhelming interest from the legal profession. People want to work for values rather than for profit.

The name Greenpeace opens a lot of doors in the legal world. We have strong ties with academia and work with law clinics at Yale, NorthWestern, Harvard, and the Amsterdam Law Schools. Take the case we have pending in Norway, a constitutional challenge against oil exploration in the Arctic. For this, we’ve had support of the Yale Human Rights law clinic in the form of an amicus brief. We have also welcomed amicus curiae briefs and expert witnesses in our Philippines human rights case, which looks into the accountability of the carbon majors for the human rights implications of climate change. As you see, academic collaboration is very important to us.

We also increasingly get support from large firms when it comes to pro bono legal support on various issues. I think there’s still room for improvement there but yes, it certainly helps to work for a global name like Greenpeace. In the past some of the larger firms have declined to work pro bono for us out of a perceived business conflict, for fear of losing out on business opportunities from the fossil fuel industry. However, the tide is turning and law firms increasingly take their own responsibility when it comes to human rights and climate change issues. They embrace the ‘do no harm’ principle and are more actively supporting NGOs. I see that as a positive development.

What advice would you have for a young environmental/human rights lawyer?

As said, there are few legal jobs in the NGO sector and competition is fierce. People who find jobs have a demonstrable track record that shows their professional skills as well as their commitment through causes. Young lawyers should build up experience through internships and hone their skills in private practice. I still think there is no better place to become a lawyer than at a law firm, but there are other places too where lawyers can build up their skills in a very demanding professional context.

Of course, you have to realise that there is no way to compete with the commercial sector in terms of salaries. It is always a dilemma for experienced lawyers. If they are in the commercial for too long, it turns into a golden cage. Work in private practice for as long as is needed to build your skills but don’t wait too long or you might get trapped. Alternatively, if you are in private practice and you do want to support the work that we do at NGOs, offer your services pro bono,  or serve on a board.

No one here doubts that the issues that we work on are acutely relevant for the future of our planet and for humanity as a whole. Climate change, biodiversity loss – if you are able to make a contribution towards addressing those threats; that is incredibly rewarding. No amount of money can match that. As a lawyer, it doesn’t get much better.

You can follow Greenpeace’s work on their website, on LinkedIn. If you have aspirations to join them, Greenpeace welcomes internships, and has a very strong intern talent pool. Greenpeace also welcome pro bono support. The bottom line is, you don’t have to work in an NGO to help protect the climate – there are lots of great opportunities for lawyers who want to work for good and not just for money.

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