International environmental justice: possibilities, limits, and tensions.

Position:International Law in a Time of Change - Proceedings of the 104th Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law - Discussion

This panel was convened at 9:00 a.m., Friday, March 26, by its moderator, John H. Knox of Wake Forest University School of Law, who introduced the panelists: Deepa Badrinarayana of Chapman University School of Law; Edward Cameron of the World Bank, Social Development Department; and Daniel Magraw of the Center for International Environmental Law. *

* Edward Cameron and Daniel Magraw did not submit remarks for the Proceedings.


I would like to welcome you to this panel discussion, entitled "International Environmental Justice: Possibilities, Limits, and Tensions." My name is John Knox, and I am a professor at Wake Forest University. It is my honor to moderate this panel of very distinguished experts on this timely topic.

Domestically, the concept of environmental justice developed in response to concerns that poor and minority populations were being asked to bear more than their fair share of the environmental burdens imposed by industrial society. Hazardous waste sites, for example, appeared to be disproportionately located in such relatively powerless communities.

There is an international parallel. Transboundary and global environmental harm often disproportionately affects poor and relatively powerless countries. The gravest consequences of climate change, in particular, threaten some of the poorest countries in the world. For example, Bangladesh and small island states are at great risk from rising sea levels, and countries in sub-Saharan Africa from increasing drought.

As in the domestic context, these concerns about environmental justice achieved prominence only after the law had developed detailed norms both on environmental protection and on protection of human rights. In other words, the understanding that environmental harm can interfere with human rights was not included in the original conceptions of international environmental law or of human rights law.

In the international context, this oversight has been recognized for nearly two decades. (1) But recent years have seen new levels of interest in the ways that environmental harm interacts with issues of social justice. Much of this interest has focused on the effects of climate change on human rights, which have recently been the subject of an important report from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), (2) sustained attention from the UN Human Rights Council, (3) and increasing interest from special rapporteurs and treaty bodies. (4)

More generally, the UN Environment Programme and the UN OHCHR held an expert meeting last fall on the prospect for a declaration on human rights and the environment. (5) Academic interest is also percolating, as is illustrated by the recent launch of a new journal devoted to the topic, (6) as well as by the publication of a number of recent articles and monographs. (7)

There are at least two fundamental questions raised by the renewed attention to international environmental justice. First, at a conceptual level, have the norms relevant to these issues been adequately identified and clarified? (For example, is this issue simply a matter of applying existing international environmental and human rights laws, or is it necessary to develop new norms?) Second, what needs to happen at a practical level to bring these existing or new norms to bear more effectively on environmental threats to social justice?

We could not have a better panel to discuss these questions. Our first speaker, Dan Magraw, has spent much of his adult life thinking about issues of environmental justice. He is the president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law. His previous positions include serving as director of EPA's international environmental law office from 1992...

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