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

So many options, so little time…

I’ve attended a few modules, trying to pin down the perfect fit but they are all so fascinating, I don’t know which ones I want to pick. The downside to this is the copious amounts of readings that are required in order to keep up with the first day of class (which is in seminar format).
So far, the pool I have to choose from is:
International Human Rights Law
Public International Law
International Humanitarian Law
Regional Human Rights
Economic and Social Rights
Rights of the Child
Ultimately, I’ll have to pick four of these and this is proving to be difficult. Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Law run for the whole year and we are assessed by a 3 hour long examination.
The course structure comprises of two terms that are both examinable in May. Some modules are assessed with essays while others require you to sit the exam. This narrows my options because, being a social sciences student who is partial to writing papers, exams are distressing to me.
I want to point out that I’m not a law student. While an LL.B. is strongly advised before undertaking an LL.M., it is not a requirement at some schools so long as your degree is in something relevant. For me, this was political science and criminology.
We also have to send in our preliminary decisions for the next semester too. I’m slightly disappointed that they aren’t offering a module specific to women’s rights but I know that it’s a subject that is bound to be covered by the other options. Anyhow, this is what the spring semester looks like…
Religion and International Human Rights
Minorities and International Human Rights Law
Rights, Humans and Other Animals
Imprisonment and Human Rights
United Nations Law
The trickiest part of choosing courses is that while my forte lies with minority rights, my criminological background has developed into a special interest for the justice system and incarceration. I decided to fore-go any of the criminal law classes that were taking place this semester in favour of classes that fit my chosen stream.
I’m also trying to procure a position with the Human Rights Law Centre (UoN has a very good one) as a student research assistant. I know I’d excel at planning their annual student conference but I really want to get out of comfort zone a little bit and branch out by editing their yearbooks and journal. I’m a research fiend so that may help.

Let’s try this again

They keep telling me to start a blog. They, meaning everyone. From friends to professor to career advisers.
I didn’t want to tell them how many times I’ve failed at creating this blog. My travels, for the moment, are shielded from the eyes of the internet (which isn’t always a bad thing).
Anyhow, they think it’s a great idea.
Perhaps it is, I’ve always visited academic subjects in my personal journals, so why shouldn’t I put it all up on the internet. At best, it’ll serve as motivation for someone else to become interested in the subject matter that I discuss and, at the very least, I’ll be able to review this before my exam.
So basically, I’m going to lay out a few objectives and take it from there.

1. First and foremost, I’m going to describe what I’m learning through my Masters in Law course and, when appropriate, apply it to current events and my own experiences.

2. I’ll talk about my integration into the United Kingdom educational system by examining my university to see what it has to offer myself and other students.

This is the third introduction that I’ve written for this blog. Hopefully, I’ll be able to take at least a little bit of time out of readings to actually write something.