Creating a dynamic new law centre

Creating a dynamic new law centre McGill University

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McGill Reporter
May 30, 2002 - Volume 34 Number 17
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 34: 2001-2002 > May 30, 2002 > Creating a dynamic new law centre

Creating a dynamic new law centre

The Centre for International Sustainable Development Law will be launched at the June 13-16 conference, Sustainable Justice 2002. To officially burst on the scene has been four careful years in the making.

Photo CISDL director Marie-Claire Cordonier Segger
PHOTO: Owen Egan

Director Marie-Claire Cordonier Segger has been involved from the start, drumming up the idea with like-minded peers during her first year of law school. Segger met Ashfaq Khalfan, now also a CISDL director, at orientation week. Khalfan's specialization in human rights and poverty eradication is a complement to Segger's environmental and trade law focus. "We influence each other," she says.

With McGill's strengths in comparative and civil law, Université de Montréal's in international relations, and UQAM's community approach, Montreal is just the place for a forward-thinking international law centre, Segger says. As well, three major environmental accord organizations are based here -- the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Montreal Protocol of the Ozone Convention.

So how do you create something out of nothing? "It took three years and 16 people to get the funding in place, organize the conference, and develop a work plan and mandate," Segger says. Khalfan says they explored their options with a feasibility study in 1998. Should they set up a research centre, a policy advisory committee, a law firm? They asked similar centres how they got started, and what they'd do differently if they were new. "We were seen as partners, not competitors," Segger says. In 2000, they presented the results of the feasibility study to a group of international and McGill experts.

Professor Stephen Toope was Dean of the Faculty of Law at the time. "They're remarkable," he says of the "self-motivating, self-starting" group. "They've achieved an amazing amount in a relatively short amount of time," he adds, "and they've already produced an influential body of work."

With the legal creation of CISDL last year came funding from five Canadian government departments and three Quebec ones. CISDL has international partners, backing from Canadian law firms, and some funds from private contracts. In the last year the members have presented briefs at many events, part of gearing up for their own conference and the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg.

Sustainable development, as defined at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, Segger says, means meeting the needs of current generations without compromising the needs of future generations. Development needn't come at the cost of the environment.

People might think sustainable development refers to, or is a replacement for, environmental law. But CISDL, Segger explains, recognizes that there are three sets of law that can contradict each other -- social, economic and environmental. The centre's logo is of a globe with three lines representing these laws looping around to form a triangle. "We work in the intersection of all three," Segger says.

To heed one, countries can mistakenly contravene another. "You can end up with disasters, like kicking out an indigenous community to protect a rainforest," Segger says. Though linked, the laws aren't always mutually complementary.

For instance, Khalfan explains, climate change exacerbates desertification, which then affects food sources. Hence, it's an environmental problem with human rights consequences. A call for reduction in greenhouse gas emissions becomes both an environmental and human rights issue. Say polluter taxes are put in place, how does that impact the most vulnerable, the poor? Should small companies be fined at the same rate as big corporate plants? Would the price of bus passes rise, requiring subsidies? "We need people with expertise in trade, biodiversity and human rights," Khalfan says.

"Letting people know the law contributes to its protection," he adds. They don't always know what their country's committed to.

Striking a balance between trade needs, human rights and the environment is tricky. The Montreal Protocol is an example of international law working at its best, Segger says. Trade was banned with countries that didn't stop using CFCs, and in three years, those countries reassessed the policy, stopped using CFCs, and are now competitive on the international market. She adds, "There was an environmental goal and they used trade law to get it."

Khalfan says they hope for CISDL to become a strong interdisciplinary research and academic centre, examining fields from biodiversity to health. They plan on producing a journal and hope to contribute course packs and lectures to McGill. They'll provide facilities to visiting researchers and web-based resources for those far from comprehensive libraries. Legal partnerships with other countries will help CISDL give training for capacity building in vulnerable communities. Another goal is to simply give non-governmental organizations impartial information on international law.

"We heed both sides of the fence and respect those in the debate," Segger says. Occasionally, people have urged them to make statements they're uncomfortable with, but which would promote an agenda. "We try to be accurate and not make claims we can't support," Khalfan says. This adherence to accuracy has prompted at least one person to comment, Segger laughs, "'Oh, I didn't realize you were a serious international law centre.'"

Segger lists three ingredients as crucial for such an endeavour. "People who are as committed as they are competent -- you get those at McGill." As well, a network is crucial to forming partnerships and getting support. The last, Segger says, is "roots. You can't just be an international centre floating around. You need roots in the community and the government, with NGOs, and in the academic and private sectors."

The physical distance between members is a challenge, Khalfan says. Spread all over the globe, they rely on electronic means to stay in touch. But, Khalfan adds, the variety of backgrounds in the group also "provides legal soundness -- we can't be pigeonholed by North/South division." All members bring their own expertise and locally informed perspective and legal examples.

They're all very excited about the upcoming conference. Guests will include Gregory Weera-Mantry, former judge of the International Court of Justice who, during the nuclear weapons debate, was the first to say that the wishes of civil society should have relevance on policy making. Other bright lights include Albie Sachs, of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. Conference chairs include McGill's Dean of the Faculty of Law, Peter Leuprecht, Dr. Alexandre Timoshenko, former head of UNEP Legal Division, and Kamal Hossain, Chair of the ILA committee for the Legal Aspects of Sustainable Development. All three are on CISDL's international advisory board.

The other 14 commission members are Alhagi Marong, Witold Tymowski, Salim A. Nakhjavani, Osman Aboubakr, Jorge Cabrera, Beatrice Chaytor, Caroline Dommen, Carolyn Deere, Markus Gehring, François Joubert, Maria Leichner, Maya Prabhu, Cairo Robb and Catherine Zoi Varfis.

The founders are young and dynamic, none older than their mid-30s. "We're children of Rio," Segger laughs, referring to the 1992 Earth Summit which she attended as a founder of the United Nations Environmental Program's Youth Advisory Committee. "It's the generation -- we're running the show now."

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