Social Justice and the Environment

Informally, there have been assumed to be three waves of international human rights law. [1] The idea being that each level of rights prompted a struggle to be recognized as one.

  • First generation rights include civil and political rights such as the right to vote, freedom of religion, freedom of speech etc.
  • Second generation rights are what we know as socioeconomic rights- embodied in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights- are those such as the right to housing, food, an education, employment and so on.
  • Third generation rights have included the right to development, communication and sustainability.

I want to address the right to a healthy environment/sustainability. Due to the fact that human rights are human-centric, human rights law cannot accord rights on animals or objects or concepts. The environment itself does not have any human rights.

But the definition included in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Report on Climate Change and Human Rights infers that the environment necessitates protection due to its impact on the rights of humans.[2]

Can a dangerous environment can violate human rights?

Environment and Rights
The OHCHR addresses climate change and the state obligation to protect the environment (which encompasses the protection of the human rights of individuals impacted by the environment in a harmful way).
This is where the opinions of human rights advocates and environmental advocates split: does human dependance on the environment require that it be protected or should it be protected on accord of its own virtue?
If there were no humans, should the environment be protected?
But of course, some human rights advocates say, it should be protected but not by human rights law.
If you ask Handl, he’ll say that human rights can conflict with environmental protection (think: development)
I’m digressing from the point. I didn’t want to focus on environmental protections on a macro level (although the above serves well as a short introduction).

Environmental Protection on the Ground Level

Do you ever throw paper into the bin? Perfectly recyclable paper into the bin? If you do, do you feel a sense of guilt? Has the message of sustainability been socially ingrained in you yet? What about recycling when you’re at work? If your office is like most workplaces, you’ll have a blue box right next to your desk for paper. But what about glass and plastic? Do you throw your microwavable container away after you’ve finished up the fettuccine? Or do you not buy microwavable meals because you focus on avoiding processed food?

This article has been inspired by a disregard for the environment on the part of those working in social justice. The argument being that they’d rather spend their time advocating on behalf of individuals who have urgent needs. This is understandable not entirely convincing. It falls in line with other such excuses (I’m a mother of three, I’m a lawyer who puts in 80 hour weeks, I’m a night shift worker and I never sleep so I cannot find the time to recycle).

This is a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black since I, as well, have too often rolled up the newspaper and chucked it in the little grey can at the foot of my bed rather than making the trek to the designated compartment in the kitchen. Yet, I’m the first to be affronted by the indifference shown by the general public towards the conditions facing single mothers. Apathy is not supposed to be a social justice advocate trait.

In terms of non-profits, the areas that seem to be making the most progress in sustainability are the fields of food security, health, indigenous rights and animal rights. Indigenous groups are quick to recognize that environmental degradation is pestilent to the land that they’ve spent centuries sustaining themselves with and charities in the promotion of health and nutrition recognize the benefits of locally produced food. I was recently speaking to the ED of a food bank who expressed that Kraft meals are a thing of the past and that food sustainability is in. Similarly, animal rights advocates promote protectionist policies as the current situation is causing a depletion in the animal population. Perhaps all of these groups have an ulterior motive for advocating for the environment but at least they are making strides.

Social justice advocates are scarce at environmental rallies.A project manager at an illustrious non-profit claims that she loves the arts but can’t support the arts as she feels that the funding could be better utilized at anti-poverty organization. Despite acknowledging that her own sentiments are silly, she has consciously removed herself from their supporter base. Does the same train of thought transfer to the environment even though we all know that the progression of the world as it is could result is mass catastrophes that leave anything we’ve ever dealt with in the dust (quite literally)?

Why aren’t we supporting environmental groups when issues of contention come up? Why do we scream in fury when we hear of FGM but we don’t make a squeak when mass deforestation is taking place in our own backyards? If we’re harm reductionists, why do we promote studies that serve as evidence in favour of the low barrier method but we don’t give credit to the science that confirms climate change?

I was in the practice of ignoring environmental issues in the newspaper until (very) recently. I accepted that conservation was essential but I didn’t comprehend the role that I had to play. I’d taken ownership over violence against women and children, poverty, multiculturalism, prisoner rehabilitation, other social justice issues, assuming them to be my issues and what I needed to focus on. I realize now that this was an overly simplistic viewpoint. We all need to do our parts. Despite the perception of being too busy to deviate from work, we need to acknowledge the following:

  1. That the environment will impact human rights including the individuals that we advocate for, thus it is our concern
  2. The environment should be protected by virtue of its own self, thus it is our concern

We won’t get there in a day but social justice advocates should be on the right side of history and we will be… once we get in the habit of it.

[1] I do want to emphasize the word informal because the three ‘waves’ of human rights are a point of contention, they usually lead into the debate about positive rights vs negative rights and whether they exist. I’m not claiming to be in complete agreement with this model but I am using it here for simplicity’s sake.
[2] http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/HRAndClimateChange/Pages/Study.aspx

The 14th Annual Student Human Rights Conference

I’ve been trying to work on this post for a while now but it’s been low on my priority list since the semester has been winding down and it’s time to embark on the world of summative assessments and exam preparation.
So the 14th Annual Student Human Rights Conference took place earlier this month. It was organized by the Human Rights Law Centre at the University of Nottingham and featured a range of experts and scholars from the field. As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve partaken in the organization of the event along with five others in the LL.M. program and it was exhilarating to see all our hard work come to fruition. The project was overseen by someone with the HRLC but it was a delight to plan the conference over the course of the past few months. I’ve been extensively involved in non-profit event management but it’s always been geared towards community development in western countries. This is the first time I’ve managed to reconcile my interest in human rights with my love for event planning.
Anyway, the theme this year was Democracy and Human Rights. I won’t hash out the entirety of the conference (more information about that can be found here) but here are some of the biggest highlights:
- A special video message opening our conference from Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, speaking about the importance of democracy
- The first time the conference featured a live twitter feed. Since I spent the majority of the morning plenary sessions managing registration, I loved watching the interactive discussion projected on the wall.
- A delegation from Khartoum University’s Faculty of Law. The HRLC was hosting them for the week and it was interesting to experience the ideas being bounced around by them during the panels.
- I did manage to sit in on the one panel that I was extremely keen on seeing: the Forgotten Subjects of Democracy. Bethany Schmidt’s discussion about prisoner’s voting rights made me nostalgic for my criminology days.
Aside from a few logistical glitches, the conference went off without a hitch and I’m very proud of what it has managed to accomplish. I think it’s important to provide a means for human rights students from a variety of disciplines to get together and collaborate.
P1040540And a picture of the planning committee with Alfred de Zayas, UN Independent Expert on the Promotion of a Democratic and Equitable International Order (don’t you love his bow tie?!)

World Toilet Day

The reason I find it easy to talk about this because of its tongue-in-cheek nature but, let’s be honest, we take our toilets (and the humour that goes along with it) for granted.  When we really start thinking about toilets, we soon come to the realization that they are very important instruments to the fulfillment of human rights :) the right to life, health, an adequate standard of living…
Rights aside, the economic benefits of providing people with toilets are plentiful. It also encourages gender equity in education. Improving sanitation is a step towards providing people with health and dignity. Currently, over 2.5 billion people in the world don’t have access to clean toilets.
For more information, visit the World Toilet Organization- an NGO that supports global sanitation.

Juvenile Justice

We talked about children in the criminal justice system today. I’m a big proponent of restorative justice and that heavily played into my outlook on the topic of discussion.
Additionally, my criminological background has given me certain insight into why crime occurs and the sort of individuals who cause and are victims of crimes. When it comes to juvenile offending, these are just some things that I know to be true…

  • Youth crime is largely a result of socioeconomic factors
  • The levels of crime committed by male youth peak in their teenage and early adult years and steadily declines afterwards
  • Punishment and incarceration are not effective deterrence and, very often, they lead to a cycle of disruption and social exclusion in a child’s life- this is difficult to recover from

Keeping this in mind, it’s important to acknowledge that imprisoning young offenders does nothing for us, nothing for them and nothing for society as a whole. If anything, it traps them and hinders their development. We cannot raise active and law-abiding citizens within the justice system that we have today.
The biggest concern lies within a marginalized population- the poor (usually minority) child who is growing up in a stressful environment with inadequate care. This is the child that suffers the most from arbitrary and damaging judicial decisions and processes.
These concepts are difficult for the public at large to understand. It’s easier to vilify offending children and their parents instead of taking a reconciliatory and restorative approach to these issues.
During the Vancouver riots in 2011 following the loss of the Vancouver Canucks hockey team from the Stanley Cup playoffs, there was a frenzied witch-hunt of sorts that targeted teenagers and young adults for their participation in the riots.
These types of scenarios perpetuate the modern impression of youth as dangerous and immoral. Portraying them as deviants, in this fashion, does nothing but exclude them from mainstream society and alienate them- which, understandably, doesn’t help discourage them from a life of crime.
This is one of the reasons why I was impressed to see CommCRC’s General Comment 10 which emphasized the importance of raising awareness and diminishing the perception that youth are troublemakers and generally harmful towards others. We cannot ask youth to obey the law and, at the same time, demonize them in the social sphere. State, individual and group actions that strive to pursue and fulfill the committee’s recommendations are commendable:

Children who commit offenses are often subject to negative publicity in the media, which contributes to a discriminatory and negative stereotyping of these children and often of children in general. This negative presentation or criminalization of child offenders is often based on misrepresentation and/or misunderstanding of the causes of juvenile delinquency, and results regularly in a call for a tougher approach (e.g. zero-tolerance, three strikes and you are out, mandatory sentences, trial in adult courts and other primarily punitive measures). To create a positive environment for a better understanding of the root causes of juvenile delinquency and a rights-based approach to this social problem, the States parties should conduct, promote and/or support educational and other campaigns to raise awareness of the need and the obligation to deal with children alleged of violating the penal law in accordance with the spirit and the letter of CRC. In this regard, the States parties should seek the active and positive involvement of members of parliament, NGOs and the media, and support their efforts in the improvement of the understanding of a rights-based approach to children who have been or are in conflict with the penal law. It is crucial for children, in particular those who have experience with the juvenile justice system, to be involved in these awareness-raising efforts.
(Source: CRC.C.GC.10/96)

If we want our children and youth to stop committing crimes, we need to engage them in public discourse and start propagating a new conception of young people among adults- one that comprehensively identifies and acknowledges the different stages of childhood from a developmental perspective. This is incredibly important if we hope to raise principled citizens who can contribute positively to the community.