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Insights from the 2024 Symposium on Emerging Issues in Environmental Law held by UNEP and University of Nairobi

The recent symposium on “Emerging Issues in Environmental Law,” held on May 30-31, 2024, in Nairobi and online marked a pivotal moment in the global conversation about our planet’s future. Gathering experts from around the world, the event highlighted the current state of environmental policies and pointed towards the future, emphasizing the need for evolving legal frameworks to address urgent environmental challenges.

A significant theme was the call for a global treaty on plastic pollution. Plastic waste is a pervasive pollutant, threatening marine life and entering human food chains. Prof. Alexander Solntsev advocated for an international treaty on plastic pollution, highlighting the inadequacies of current piecemeal regulations. He emphasized the need for international cooperation to mitigate plastic’s impact, suggesting a shift from national to global accountability. This unified legal approach would bind countries to enforce effective waste management and reduction practices.

Equally important was the discussion on transitioning from conservation to restoration. Prof. Juan-Cruz Alli Turrillas emphasized ecosystem restoration over mere conservation, representing a strategic shift. Conservation focuses on preserving what’s left, while restoration aims to rebuild ecosystems to their former health. This proactive approach can help reverse damage caused by neglect and exploitation. It suggests that environmental law should mandate active recovery efforts, integrating restoration into legal obligations and international goals.

The symposium also highlighted the indispensable role of indigenous communities in environmental stewardship. Dr. Lieselotte Viaene emphasized the rights of indigenous peoples, bringing to light the importance of traditional knowledge in conserving biodiversity. Indigenous communities have long been custodians of many fragile ecosystems. Recognizing and integrating their rights into legal frameworks is not just a matter of justice but also environmental necessity. Their involvement could lead to more effective and culturally sensitive conservation strategies, bridging the gap between modern legal approaches and traditional ecological knowledge.

The plight of environmental refugees, discussed by Dr. Susana Borrás Pentinat, is another pressing issue. Climate change is displacing populations, creating a new category of refugees fleeing environmental devastation. Current international laws do not adequately protect these individuals. There’s a need for a legal framework recognizing environmental refugees and providing them with rights and protections. This would involve redefining international refugee laws to include those displaced by environmental factors, ensuring they receive the support and protection they need.

Dr. Thomas Obel Hansen’s call for recognizing ecocide as an international crime represents a bold step towards accountability for large-scale environmental destruction. Including ecocide in international criminal law would deter environmental negligence and exploitation. This concept challenges us to expand legal definitions and accountability mechanisms to include severe environmental harm, treating it with the same gravity as other international crimes.

The intersection of human rights and environmental law, highlighted by Prof. Ben Boer, suggests a transformative approach to environmental governance. Viewing environmental protection through a human rights lens places the well-being of individuals and communities at the forefront of environmental policy. It demands that environmental laws protect not just the environment but also the people who depend on it. This approach could lead to more comprehensive and inclusive policies addressing both ecological and social dimensions of sustainability.

Justice Oscar Angote’s discussion on secure land tenure as a cornerstone of environmental justice further underscores the importance of legal frameworks in achieving sustainable development. Land rights are often at the heart of environmental conflicts, and ensuring secure tenure can empower communities to manage and protect their resources more effectively. This highlights the need for environmental laws that safeguard land rights as part of broader efforts to achieve environmental justice.

The symposium’s emphasis on integrating environmental considerations into peace and security frameworks, as discussed by Mr. Donald Kaniaru and Prof. Karen Hulme, reflects the growing recognition of the environment as a critical factor in global stability. Environmental degradation can exacerbate conflicts and hinder peacebuilding efforts. Incorporating environmental protection into peace and security policies is essential for creating sustainable and lasting peace.

The 2024 Symposium on Emerging Issues in Environmental Law illuminated the path forward, emphasizing the need for innovative, inclusive, and proactive legal frameworks. The discussions reinforced the idea that addressing environmental challenges requires a holistic approach integrating conservation, human rights, and global cooperation.