“Environmental law offers a glimmer of hope for progress, especially for the world’s most vulnerable people. Adoption of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment will accelerate climate and environmental action.” It’s a turning point and a game-changer for the future,” Patricia Cameri-Mbote told attendees at last month’s conference on “environmental law from below.”
The legal director of the United Nations Environment Program referred to the UN General Assembly’s agreement in July this year that “the right to a safe, healthy and clean environment” is a universal human right. Only eight countries abstained, and he got zero votes against. It gives a strong legitimacy to the historic verdict.
Fifty years ago, the United Nations Environment Council first established principles for good global environmental governance. This is a game changer for the environmental movement. As in 1972, the July resolution opened up great opportunities for grassroots action on environmental protection.
A one-day conference held on September 27 at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, brought together researchers, lawyers, journalists and students from Kenya, Zimbabwe, Ghana, China and beyond to discuss environmental rights, litigation, just transitions and emerging trends. discussed the possibilities and pitfalls of Cooperation among developing countries.
The event was co-organized by the University of Nairobi Law School, China Dialogue and the Raul Wallenberg Institute.
Recognition of environmental rights at the UN level offers new opportunities for legal action and to hold polluters and governments accountable for the negative environmental impacts of their actions and decisions. These rights are tools for civil society and vulnerable communities around the world, including people, women and indigenous peoples living in precarious social and economic conditions. In the context of the triple crisis of climate, biodiversity and pollution, the verdict has never come at a more critical time.
Robert Kibugi, senior legal lecturer at the University of Nairobi, said environmental rights are enshrined in the African Charter and the Kenyan Constitution. But he added that enacting rights is only the first step in protecting vulnerable communities. Litigation is costly, time-consuming and often out of reach of affected communities. Knowledge and literacy are required, which are also barriers to access.
In addition to this, Frank Mparro, executive director of the Green Governance Zimbabwe Trust, noted that understandings of environmental rights often differ between communities, governments and businesses, creating conflict and disagreement. , Zimbabwe’s landmark 2013 constitution also recognizes the right to a clean environment, but “we just don’t see it in practice, despite all the laws in place.” he told the audience.
“Environmental law gives us a glimmer of hope,” said Patricia Cameri Mbote, Director of the Legal Division of the United Nations Environment Programme, at a conference last month (Image: RWI)
“Despite the laws being enacted, we haven’t seen anything. [a clean environment] actually. ” Frank Mparro, Executive Director, Green Governance Zimbabwe Trust (Image: RWI)
Countering this requires education and awareness. Li Fung, Senior Human Rights Advisor to the United Nations Resident Coordinator for Kenya, emphasized the role of civic engagement and civic space in shaping a culture of environmental rights. In Kenya, civic participation is recognized in the constitution as a value of governance. Kenya has witnessed this in recent years with a number of landmark environmental lawsuits, including winning a lawsuit against his Lamu coal-fired power plant project in 2019, and dealing with lead poisoning from his battery recycling plant in Mombasa in 2020. You can see
But Kibugi noted that the strength of environmental litigation as a tool for environmental justice in Kenya should not be viewed as a simple success. Excessive reliance on legal tools indicates negligence of legislators and legislative implementers.
justice and transition
The discussion also highlighted the relevance of environmental rights and justice to economic and social transitions central to how the world responds to the climate, biodiversity and pollution crises.
Communities around the world will be affected as the global economy moves away from a model dominated by fossil fuel technology, resource extraction and disposable products.
New job opportunities will emerge, but old forms of employment and livelihoods will come to an end.
It is critical that these transitions are managed in ways that minimize harm, create opportunities and provide justice to communities.
Migration affects the entire community. For example, the closure of a coal-fired power plant or coal mine affects not only the direct employees of those projects, but also the shops, services, culture and livelihoods built around them. Big changes lead to winners and losers. We need to recognize how and critically the concept of “fairness” is defined, for whom and by whom. As our societies and economies enter a period of transition, we need to consider these issues now to ensure that the most vulnerable people in our societies are not left behind again. One participant said that while the global energy transition is gaining momentum, too much green investment replicates the mining logic that has shaped coal and hydropower development in Africa and elsewhere over the last century. If left unaddressed, the benefits of new energy generation models will be ubiquitous and communities’ environmental rights undermined.
The role of law and litigation is the final line of defense against fraud.
Robert Kibugi, Senior Legal Lecturer
Kibugi pointed out that migration also requires a new way of thinking about development. For example, Article 24 of the 1981 African Charter on Human Rights states: [people’s] development. “All too often across the continent, this has led to a polarization between environment and development that has become ‘political prey’. This is not a useful starting point, he argues. Instead, we need to recognize the symbiosis of economic development and ecosystem maintenance. The African Protocol on Human Rights to a Clean and Healthy Environment could reset the equation.
Seeking justice in new modes of development cooperation
Over the past decade, the prospect of South-South cooperation on development, climate and environmental issues has been on the agendas of countries in the global South. It suggests cooperation from developing countries that offer greater potential learning opportunities because recent experiences are similar. China’s involvement as a new development actor is particularly common.
But South-South alternative promises of less hierarchy and respect for property and rights have proven problematic. In particular, strong corporate stakeholder involvement created a highly unequal playing field between project developers and local communities. In response to these issues, civil society in the global South countries has begun to place more emphasis on the activities of new development actors such as China, holding various stakeholders to account, promoting transparency and legal processes. and to ensure that best practices are followed. on community and environmental rights; This includes increasingly direct engagement with stakeholders such as Chinese embassies and construction companies, with some examples of productive engagement.
However, knowledge and information about China as a development actor are fragmented, creating barriers to effective engagement by local communities and civil society. For one thing, when it comes to development cooperation, China is too often seen as the exception and the outlier. In reality, Chinese stakeholders often act like those in the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), actually building on and learning from frameworks and norms set by other countries. is.
Looking at China’s rise as a development actor in isolation also leads to understanding it through unexamined catchphrases and concepts, whether “debt trap diplomacy” or “win-win cooperation.” A better way might be found by highlighting how China and its people form an integral and interconnected part of global capitalism. This approach, explored in a recent book, Global China as Method, emphasizes a more grassroots perspective on China’s outbound investment, offering new ways for people in host countries to access information and navigate complex decisions. is proposing.
Issues of environmental rights, justice and South-South cooperation will be the main themes of this year’s United Nations Conference on Climate Change and Biodiversity, chaired respectively by Egypt and China.