As the mammoth conference known as Rio+20 draws nearer (June 20-22), a variety of events are shedding light on the distance travelled since June 1992. Back when the Brazilian city hosted the initial Earth Summit, the environment was just shaping up as a major concern. Two decades on, sustainability has found its way into the lexicon of policy-making, while climate change has morphed from lab model to everyday concept.
For many of those closely involved with the process, however, there is still a long road ahead. Some notions, they say, have yet to take root: the idea that sustainable development is inseparable from human rights; that law is a key tool in delivering it; and that far from being just something for environment ministers to worry about, climate awareness should be built into every aspect of local and global governance.
These ideas are at the forefront of a one-day conference being chaired in New York by IDLO Director-General Irene Khan. The event, which is supported by the Italian government, has been convened jointly with the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Ms Khan’s background is in international human rights law; the commitment to sustainable development she traces back to life in her native Bangladesh, one of the countries most at risk from chronic flooding. Her presence in New York is part of IDLO’s efforts to weave both strands of thought into a coherent proposition for the developing world. On hand to facilitate the debates is Marie-Claire Cordonier Segger: running a broadly defined Economy and Trade brief at IDLO, she is the organization’s go-to legal expert on all matters green.
There is a touch of fatigue in Ms Cordonier Segger’s voice as she speaks from headquarters in Rome, shortly before travelling to New York. Since climate change and the pursuit of a green economy became key target areas for IDLO, her days in the office have grown quite a bit longer.
“What we’re showcasing in New York,” she explains, “is our capacity to track and share best legal practise, in a structured way, between different countries. It’s about monitoring and evaluating what progress is being made, nationally and internationally, towards sustainable development.”
This assessment capability is one IDLO sees as a growth area in years to come: many experts believe that the current Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have weak provisions for sustainable development, and progress gauging tools are insufficient. Expecting more muscular targets and benchmarks to emerge from Rio+20, IDLO is, in effect, offering the world a sophisticated barometer, together with the skills to interpret the data.
High on the agenda of the New York conference is the question of whether, and the extent to which, international court rulings are integrating sustainable development principles. Yet as well as navigating the upper spheres of global treaties and jurisprudence, IDLO remains bound up with local concerns: Ms Cordonier Segger has witnessed illegal logging first hand. As part of the ’92 Earth Summit, she led a speaking tour, overland, from Canada to Chile. Elsewhere — in parts of northern Kenya, for example — it is climate change that is wiping out the forests.
While she takes care not to equate all situations — the human suffering in Kenya is considerably greater than in the Americas — Ms Cordonier Segger does point out the similarities: environmental degradation, she explains, hurts the poor the most. Mitigating it can be a matter of survival. “That voyage made me realise that we need to find sustainable solutions which work for local economies.” And because IDLO is an everything-is-connected kind of place, human rights indicators, such as equity and participation, are integral to its approach: “If an environmental law is enacted that puts a fence around a park, with barbed wire and people with guns to protect the trees — well, that might be a great environmental law, because the trees are definitely protected. But it’s not a sustainable law. Where is that community? Why can’t it engage — and benefit?”
Kenya is, in fact, one of the countries where IDLO is most engaged: many of its alumni now occupy executive positions there, and the relationship is a close one. It is also a fact that given Kenya’s status in East Africa, successful projects there reverberate across the region and beyond. “If the green economy delivers for Kenya,” Ms Cordonier Segger adds, “the green economy will deliver for Africa.”
In Kenya and elsewhere, IDLO is seeking to replicate best practise as seen recently in Mexico: a national debate on climate change there, strongly supported by the organization, brought together fourteen federal ministries, all state governments, civil society and the private sector. As a result, climate concerns are finding their way into a host of Mexican laws, interstate agreements, and at least one state constitution. Reforestation is proceeding apace. IDLO has just completed an assessment of Mexico’s legal preparedness for sustainable development, with a view to sharing the country’s experience as widely as possible.
There is no question that in and of themselves, laws, particularly in countries with a history of breaking them, are only half the story. But as IDLO sees it, for the second half — effective implementation — to follow, that front half must be really well written.