Corrupt at Its Core: How Law Failed the Victims of Waste Dumping in Côte D’ Ivoire

Forthcoming in 43 Columbia J. Envt'l L. (2018)

46 Pages Posted: 21 May 2018

See all articles by Rebecca M. Bratspies

Rebecca M. Bratspies

City University of New York - School of Law

Date Written: May 6, 2018


On August 19, 2006, citizens of Côte d’ Ivoire woke to suffocating odors. Overnight, five-hundred tons of hazardous waste had been illegally dumped across the country’s largest city, Abidjan. Thousands were sickened. The incident stands as one of the most flagrant environmental crimes in recent memory. Now, more than a decade later, it is past time to examine the tragedy as an act of environmental corruption and to use the incident to draw lessons about the failures of global environmental governance. The relationship between the events in Abidjan and the international oil trade provide a particularly useful case study for exploring this issue because the Trafigura, the company involved in the incident, self-describes as being “at the heart of the global economy.” Taking the company at its word, the Abidjan dumping highlights a troubling lack of accountability at the heart of the global economy. It reveals how the system of laws that make up international trade law permit Northern trading partners to profit enormously from unlawful conduct in Southern States, while deploying formal legal structures as a shield against any responsibility for that conduct. Indeed, the incident reveals an implicit form of corruption embedded in a global trading system structured to allow plausible denials of involvement in illegal or corrupt transactions.

This Article begins with an overview of how environmental corruption has typically been framed in scholarly discussions. Part 2 provides a description of the tragedy that occurred in Abidjan, situating it in the context of the public and private environmental governance and management choices that led up to it. Part 3 identifies the legal regimes that should have prevented this tragedy, and analyzes where those legal regimes fell short. This Part proposes that the contours of the global trading infrastructure in which such choices get made is itself corrupt — that drawing the boundaries of actors subject to environmental and human rights obligations to exclude transnational corporations (“TNCs”) is itself a kind of implicit corruption. Finally, this Article uses the robust literature on environmental corruption to demonstrate that this implicit form of corruption is built into the heart of the international commodities trade, and concludes by suggesting some ways forward.

Keywords: corruption, trade, international law, Bamako, Basel Ban, MARPOL, Cote d'Ivoire, Trafigura, hazardous waste, oil, diesel, environment environmental governance, human rights

JEL Classification: K00, K32, K23, Q35, Q37,Q56, Q58, O55, P45

Suggested Citation

Bratspies, Rebecca M., Corrupt at Its Core: How Law Failed the Victims of Waste Dumping in Côte D’ Ivoire (May 6, 2018). Forthcoming in 43 Columbia J. Envt'l L. (2018) , Available at SSRN: or

Rebecca M. Bratspies (Contact Author)

City University of New York - School of Law ( email )

2 Court Square
Long Island City, NY 11101
United States

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