The Blindfold is Off: Lady Justice Has Her Sights on Rio and Beyond

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As the official top level delegates arrive in Rio, and as groups like NRDC continue to press for more concrete action commitments to reduce pollution and degradation, the world’s judges and attorneys general made their contribution to the effort. 

The World Congress on Justice, Governance, and Law for Environmental Sustainability is a gathering of legal experts who, in the words of Amina Mohamed, Deputy Executive Director at the United Nations Environment Programme, “represent the backbone for the attainment of sustainability goals.”

These are the people to whom, after the negotiators pack up and go home, fall the task of turning government agreements into reality. And yesterday, in the very impressive Supreme Court of the State of Rio de Janeiro, this group of legal experts from countries north and south, rich and poor, agreed that an informed, empowered public was critical to upholding environmental law.

The Supreme Court building is brand new and massive. It is also more high-tech than any state supreme court I’ve seen, with a bench for the nine justices but also four large projection screens, and seating for 200 delegates, each with a microphone and voting system – a great place to conclude the World Congress with its emphasis on public participation and access to information.

Philip Goo, NRDC, and me at the Rio de Janeiro Supreme Court

The adoption of the Rio+20 negotiating document yesterday gave the World Congress the opportunity to craft a strong, forward-looking document of its own, based on our own views of how to improve implementation and enforcement of environmental laws. As the document warns, “Without adherence to the rule of law, without open, just and dependable legal orders, the outcomes of Rio+20 will remain unimplemented.” 

I know this is true, having spent nearly 20 years prosecuting environmental violations.  And I also know, as all the judges and prosecutors present concurred, that we cannot do our jobs without the participation of an informed and active public. The final declaration made specific recommendations for greater access to the courts, more transparency of information, expediting of environmental cases, and loosening standing requirements.

Unlike the original Rio negotiating process, which took months of negotiations and infighting, the World Congress formulated its declaration over only two days and two small preparatory sessions. Two nights ago, we broke into groups representing the different regions of the world to develop more specific ideas and then we all came together to craft a final document, which was adopted unanimously yesterday  morning at the Supreme Court. The speed with which the declaration was adopted testifies to the fact that those on the front lines of enforcing environmental laws all agree on the need to better involve the public – the average citizens – in the process.  As Charles Di Leva, Chief Counsel of the Environmental and International Law Unit of the World Bank, said, This was an event at which there was a universal, uniform desire to protect this planet for future generations.”

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The popular image of Lady Justice depicts her wearing a blindfold, implying that the role of judges is limited to balancing the scales of truth and fairness in the courtroom. Yet, as Winston Anderson, a judge of the Caribbean Court of Justice, noted, “There is also another image of judges, one who looks after and helps to guide the surrounding community.“ Some apologists for polluters call this activist judging, but the judges of the world simply call it fully enforcing the law.

The negotiators in Rio have their work cut out for them in the coming days. But my experience at the World Congress shows that the international legal community--the people whose job every day is to turn the words of environmental law into reality--sees a very clear path ahead. Through their strong words in the outcome document and their fervent desire to empower judges, prosecutors, and most importantly the people harmed by environmental degradation and pollution, these judges and other officials have shown their commitment to protect the communities of the world. On Lady Justice, the blindfold is off.