As I passed through the imposing gates of Glasgow University yesterday, I noticed a woman standing near the porter’s lodge looking around as if she was waiting for someone. She looked familiar, and after a minute, I realised that it was Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, UN Human Rights Commissioner, Chair of the Elders Group established by Nelson Mandela, lawyer and globally recognised and tireless advocate for human rights, gender justice and climate action. I resisted the temptation to accost her and tell her how much the Iona Community had appreciated her visit to the island in 1997.
In fact, Mary Robinson was actually one of the keynote speakers at the event I was attending, along with Ugandan youth activist Vanessa Nakate, on ‘Mobilising the Rule of Law in Climate Change’ organised by the School of Law Corporate and Financial Law Group in partnership with global law firm Hausfeld and BIICL. This is not a body whose events I would normally think of attending (or indeed, have the opportunity to do so), but after yesterday’s presentation in the Green Hub about judicial activism by young Australian Greens, I thought it might be interesting to listen and learn from another legal viewpoint. ‘Interesting’ doesn’t come near it. It was riveting!
Mary Robinson spoke about (and demonstrated) the awkwardness of silence when speech is expected. The world’s legal and justice communities has been silent for far too long on climate change, and as Desmond Tutu said, silence puts you on the side of the oppressor – ‘no comment’ is also a comment. She did indeed go on to cite the judicial activism by young people in Australia and Germany, and gave what was effectively a stirring call to action to judges and lawyers, before inviting Vanessa Nakate to speak. Vanessa is almost as well-known as Greta for her climate activism, more so in Africa, and spoke eloquently about the way that climate change in Uganda, a country heavily dependent on agriculture, is destroying farms through droughts and floods, pushing up food prices and pushing the most vulnerable into destitution and hunger.
A panel of international lawyers and law professors, from the US, Norway, Canada and India, gave wonderfully lucid and informative addresses. Among the points I took away from these were the fact that in the United States, which has no climate legislation at a federal level at all, Democratic legislators are struggling to pass climate legislation in Congress against an implacably opposed Republican party, and though there are many positive laws being enacted at a state level, the prospects of these being pushed up through federal courts are not good because of a very conservative Supreme Court.
Christina Voigt, Professor of Law at the University of Oslo, Chair of the IUCN World Commission on Environmental Law, Co-chair of the Paris Agreement´s Compliance and Implementation Committee, said that human rights violations are an issue for law courts, and doing nothing is not an option, neither is it a political act. It is what the courts exist for! From Canada came the reminder that on October 8, 2021, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution recognizing the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as an important human right. While this right is already recognized in more than 150 national jurisdictions, its international recognition paves the way for its effective integration in international law and stronger implementation domestically. From India, the importance of public interest litigation, but the political challenges to implementation. And in a subsequent panel on the role of Markets and Companies in transitioning to green economies, the importance of due diligence, and the new French law of Due Diligence for multi-nationals, progressive legislation which will help to rein them in. One of the most striking contributions drew attention to the recent Declaration on Climate Change, Rule of Law and the Courts. Declaration on Climate Change, Rule of Law and the Courts (biicl.org) and the Lawyers Climate Pledge. World Lawyers’ Pledge on Climate Action.
I must say, after years of listening closely to UK politicians (and those from elsewhere), being at this event was like being with the grown-ups in the room. It was a timely reminder of the importance of opposition to the current proposal by the UK government to curb judicial review, and removing the right of citizens to challenge the state.
Glasgow University, like practically every body in the city, has an extensive programme of COP26 events, so it seems unfortunate that it is all but closed (for security reasons, one presumes). Bill McKibben, renowned environmentalist and author, is speaking in the University Chapel on Wednesday, and will probably miss the activists. There may still be places available. Bill McKibben Public Lecture Tickets, Wed 3 Nov 2021 at 13:00| Eventbrite There is also a striking art installation, ‘7 Days’, in the chapel. It’s by Carol Marples of the Soul Marks Trust, frequent collaborator with the Wild Goose Resource Group, and is really worth a visit.
And in other news, the US and the EU have announced a global partnership to cut methane emissions (the second biggest greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide) by 30% by 2030. I am not sure where this leaves the UK, which is no longer part of either! And more than 100 world leaders have promised to end and reverse deforestation by 2030. Since the signatories to this include both Brazil and Indonesia, this will be good news when it’s implemented.
Tonight, young faith activists are presenting their calls for action to political leaders. And praying …
– Kathy Galloway
Kathy Galloway is a writer, activist and practical theologian. She has worked for the Iona Community, Christian Aid and Church Action on Poverty. She lives in Glasgow, Scotland.