Last week I was in Rio de Janeiro for the first World Environmental Law Congress. The Congress was the brainchild of Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Antonio Benjamin, who currently is the chair of the IUCN World Commission on Environmental Law (WCEL). Because it was scheduled to coincide with the launch of the new Global Judicial Institute for the Environment, the Congress attracted the participation of judges from all over the world as well as a “who’s who” of environmental law scholars. Altogether there were several hundred participants from scores of countries, including 23 countries in Africa. Prior to the opening of the Congress on April 27, a colloquium was held for early career environmental law experts who participated in a “lightning round” of brainstorming concerning ways to improve the effectiveness of environmental law.
The Congress opened in the Supreme Court of Rio de Janeiro with a performance by the National Symphony of Brazil. Chief Justice Ricardo Lorenzetti of the Supreme Court of Argentina gave the keynote opening address. He emphasized the transformative nature of the environmental paradigm in the context of law and argued that, as with human rights law, the environmental rule of law should protect the weaker party, which is nature. The 50th Anniversary of the IUCN’s red list of threatened species was then marked with the launch of a Brazilian postage stamp honoring the golden lion tamarin. Professor Adelmar Faria Coimbra Filho, a biologist who played a leading role in saving the golden lion tamarin was honored. In his remarks, Professor Coimbra, who was the first director of Rio’s Center for Primatology, argued that it actually should be called the red lion tamarin because it only looks golden when malnourished. The tamarin, which is only found in the state of Rio de Janeiro, is the only primate in the last 30 years whose status has been upgraded due to conservation efforts.
On Thursday April 28, the morning session of the Congress featured an address by Justice Shen Deyong, the acting Chief Justice of China’s Supreme People’s Court. Pace University Professor Nick Robinson, who joined Dr. Parvez Hassan in presenting a WCEL Lifetime Achievement Award to Wolfgang Burhenne and (posthumously) Dr. Francoise Burhenne, discussed new developments in Chinese environmental law. These include not only increased use of citizen suits under China’s newly-amended basis environmental law, but also the 13th Five-Year Plan’s call for creation of a sophisticated, national air quality monitoring network that will provide real time data to citizens.
In the afternoon of April 28 I was one of two keynote speakers in a session on “Principles of Environmental Law for the Anthropocene in Light of the Sustainable Development Goals.” I presented a paper on “The Judicial Role in Developing Principles of Environmental Law.” I first contrasted the judicial philosophies of Brazilian Justice Antonio Benjamin, who endorses the model juiz protaganista, with that of U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Roberts, who describes his role as an umpire calling balls and strikes (juiz espectador). I then examined how the judiciary has assisted in developing five evolving principles of global environmental law: (1) a moral obligation to future generations, (2) the sic utere and polluter pays principles, (3) the precautionary principle, (4) look before you leap and right-to-know principles, and (5) environmental justice and fairness. Following my presentation, Costanza Martinez from IUCN Headquarters in Gland, Switzerland, gave a wonderful presentation on the development of the Sustainable Development Goals. Emilie Chevalier from the Université de Limoges discussed the non-regression principle and the tension it poses to principles of national sovereignty. During the question and answer session, it was pointed out that Wales has enacted a Well Being of Future Generations Act requiring public bodies to take into account the impact of their actions on people living in Wales in the future (http://gov.wales/topics/people-and-communities/people/future-generations-act/?lang=en). It also was noted that only 33 countries have limited the use of lead in paint. The session was followed by a reception at the National Museum of Brazil.
On April 29 Dr. Parvez Hassan of Pakistan presented a detailed history of the key role played by developing countries in the evolution of international environmental law. He noted that the initial post-World War II structure of public international law was erected without much input from the developing world. But beginning with the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, developing countries began to play an active role in shaping global environmental law. Professor Jorge Vinuales of Cambridge University then reviewed the influential role of the1992 Rio Declaration on international environmental law.
Ben Boer, deputy chair of the WCEL, presented a draft World Declaration on the Environmental Rule of Law, which he described as a “legal framework for environmental justice and global ecological integrity. It enunciates 17 principles, including “in dubio pro natura” (giving nature priority), the non-regression principle, and a new principle of “progression” that urges regulators continually to update and strengthen environmental standards to take into account the latest scientific knowledge.
April 26 marked the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster when an accident at a nuclear reactor in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, spewed radiation across a wide swath of Europe, killed 56 people, and forced the evacuation of 336,000. Today the area for miles around Chernobyl remains a human exclusion zone due to lingering radiation. I visited the area in March 2009 (see blog post of March 22, 2009). Construction of a giant steel structure to encase the reactor, which now is surrounded by a cement sarcophagus, is nearing completion, funding by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Nathan Hodge, Arch Rises to Seal Chernobyl 130 Years On, Wall St. J., April 24, 2016, at A8.