UH Law School students deeply involved in actions at IUCN World Conservation Congress

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
Beverly Creamer, (808) 389-5736
Media Consultant, William S. Richardson School of Law
Posted: Sep 15, 2016

UH Associate Law Dean Denise Antolini, far left, with law students at the IUCN Congress.
UH Associate Law Dean Denise Antolini, far left, with law students at the IUCN Congress.
UH law student Christina Lizzi voting on a motion during the World Conservation Congress.
UH law student Christina Lizzi voting on a motion during the World Conservation Congress.

William S. Richardson School of Law students and faculty members led discussions, organized debates and built powerful arguments on behalf of island states at the forefront of climate change and sea level rise, enumerating urgent environmental concerns for Hawai‘i and the Pacific, during the World Conservation Congress that brought global attention to Hawai‘i’s doorstep from September 1-10:

  • At the Hawai‘i Supreme Court, the law students joined their international peers from five other law schools around the world to argue on behalf of the planet they will inherit.
  • At the UH Law School, students spoke of the need to listen to the wisdom of indigenous people, create “earth laws” to focus on the critical preservation of our natural world, and find ways to make the political system provide justice for the environment, including reining in polluting corporations.
  • At the Hawai‘i Convention Center, UH Law School students joined over 10,000 delegates from 192 nations for deliberations about issues such as saving endangered species, preserving the integrity of oceans and maintaining forests and ecosystems, along with guarding fragile wildlife habitats.
  • UH Law School students and faculty also contributed important language to the “Hawaiʻi Commitments” – a negotiated text that summarizes key issues, aspirations, and new ideas or actions emerging from the Congress – including the essential need to cultivate and strengthen the environmental rule of law.  This recognition involves the “wisdom of indigenous traditions is of particular significance as we begin to re-learn how to live in [communion] with, rather than in dominance over, the natural world, in addition to the pervasiveness of plastic waste in the ocean, and its effect on marine food chains.”

“This Congress provided a tremendous opportunity to showcase our students as voices of future generations,” said David Forman, director of the Law School’s Environmental Law Program (ELP). “ELP students interacted with their peers from around the world as well as IUCN members from a variety of disciplines with expertise on environmental issues; as a result, everyone in Hawaiʻi should be proud of the lasting contributions made by this next generation of Richardson lawyers.”

Initially overshadowed by the threat of two Pacific hurricanes, the 10-day Congress involved more than 1,500 events and meetings, including many gatherings planned by the Law School over the first five days. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) convenes its international gathering every four years, but this was the first time in its more than 70-year history that its Congress took place in the United States.

During the Congress, Richardson Law students participated in debates on the floor of the Assembly on such globally important subjects as the creation of sanctuaries for whales; the use of genome engineering to solve exotic wildlife diseases; the threat to gorillas because of illegal hunting; the loss of biodiversity and global concerns about ocean warming and sea level rise; and the danger to both the elephant and rhinoceros because of illegal ivory trading.

Both Associate UH Law Dean Denise Antolini and ELP Director Forman played crucial roles in preparing students to participate in the Congress, while building program agendas around critically important environmental issues. The students took an active role as seven Hawai‘i motions that they proposed passed both houses of the IUCN Assembly – three unanimously – in order to become resolutions adopted by the Congress. These motions focusing on Pacific and Hawai‘i issues were developed over the past three semesters in a class headed by Antolini, where law students worked with community partners that included environmental organizations and state agencies.

During the Congress, the World Commission on Environmental Law (WCEL) singled out Antolini with an honor recognizing her dynamic leadership and involvement with environmental issues. Chaired by the Honorable Antonio H. Benjamin, Justice of the National High Court of Brazil, the WCEL is an internal working body of the IUCN whose membership includes faculty from the UH Law School’s Environmental Law Program. The ELP itself is a voting member of IUCN, and the Law School as a whole is a member of the IUCN Academy of Environmental Law.

The Law School brought numerous IUCN delegates and participants to Mānoa for side events open to the general public.  For example, ELP’s “IUCN at UH Law” series addressed the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the Environmental Rule of Law; the Economic Advantages of Clean Energy; as well as Academic and Judicial Perspectives on the IUCN. 

One of the larger side events held at the Law School attracted WCEL members from around the world.  “The planet is at a crossroads; we’re facing major environmental crises from pollutants, climate change, loss of biodiversity,” said Michelle Lim of Australia’s Griffith Law School at Griffith University, during a program she co-chaired at the UH Law School highlighting Emerging Leaders from law schools around the world.

“We’re at a place where later is too late,” continued Lim. “The challenge for our generation is so great that we can’t wait for generational hand-over. We might be the only generation who can do something about it.”

Richardson Law School’s Tim Vandeveer ’18 echoed the U.S. Constitution in saying that “certain environmental rights have become self-evident,” noting that the 2016 Democrat Party platform includes a clause supporting environmental and climate justice. “This is the future we must ensure,” said Vandeveer. He went on to say that government has become “too cozy” with corporations that continue to pollute. “To stop these things we must take an active role in politics . . . and fight for environmental justice that we all deserve," he said.

In one of the programs scheduled by the Law School, American economist Jeffrey David Sachs, director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, gave a compelling talk at the Hawai‘i Supreme Court on the grievous challenges we all face because of environmental degradation. Sachs holds the title of University Professor, the highest rank Columbia bestows on its faculty, and was one of many environmental leaders who spoke of the monumental tasks that lie ahead and the need to take action now.

Delegates from every continent, and from Pacific nations already facing sea level rise that threatens their communities, repeatedly voiced the urgent need to act now. In a “moot court” presentation held at both the Hawai‘i Supreme Court and the IUCN Congress, law students from Hawai‘i, New York, France, South Korea, Brazil and the Philippines, submitted on behalf of future generations written “memorials” designed eventually to be incorporated into actual arguments before the International Court of Justice.

Student oralists, speaking on behalf of different regional interests around the world for their respective teams, focused arguments around the responsibility of nations to address climate change now – on behalf of future generations as an inter-generational responsibility – with the hope that the UN will bring the subject before the ICJ. For the moot court exercise, Hawai‘i Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald played the role of the President of the ICJ, with support from international environmental law professors acting as Judges of the court.

“Why should small island states bear the result of other countries’ wrongdoing?” questioned Léa le Cam, a law student from Sciences Po Rennes at the University of Caen in France. “The concept of climate refugees is not yet enshrined in law. What of future generations, our children, and grandchildren?”

Alyssa Y.H. Kau ’18, from the Richardson Law School, spoke about “the principles of customary international law,” citing “the duty to do no harm . . . to ensure states are not causing harm in another state’s jurisdiction."

“When an activity threatens human health,” said Kau, “precautionary measures should be taken . . . There is an obligation for states to take action to mitigate actions that harm others.”

Said Nikolas Fan from the Milton Campos Law School in Brazil, “The climate crisis creates a major threat to humankind felt around the world. The environment is the common heritage of humankind, and all states have the responsibility to preserve it.”

From the Elizabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University in New York, oralist Joseph D. Moravec pointed to the “right to life” embodied in the United Nations Charter. “If so,” he added, “then there is a right to the continuity of life itself.”

Professor Nicholas A. Robinson, founder of the IUCN Academy of Environmental Law and an internationally recognized architect of international environmental law, was particularly enthusiastic about the law students’ efforts. Robinson noted that exploring the question “what do we owe the future – or how can we be good ancestors,” is a process “of learning what we should be doing for those who come after us.” The moot court experience of “learning by doing" demonstrates the high quality of legal education around the world, although this type of legal training is not yet universal, said Robinson.

After the Congress, student testimonials will be incorporated into ongoing legal work by international lawyers in support of a resolution that asks the UN General Assembly to refer the question of responsibility to future generations formally to the International Court of Justice. It also will ask states to address the climate crisis.

In addition to the student participants from the UH Law School at the IUCN, a number of faculty members undertook important roles in leading discussions, chairing panels and focusing debate. Associate Law Dean Antolini, who led the “motions class,” chaired or organized several events, and served as the lynchpin along with ELP Director Forman in creating content for law students and the public.

UH Law School Professor Kapua Sproat led a significant workshop on indigenous water rights and a discussion of successful campaigns led by indigenous groups for the restoration of waterways.  Professor Maxine Burkett created a real time course on climate change and the law tied to presentations during the IUCN Forum, which explored emerging international legal actions around climate change, as well as actions at the local and national levels.

Along with playing important roles at the Congress themselves, Richardson Law School students and faculty also hosted the Honorable Antonio Benjamin of Brazil (Chair, World Commission on Environmental Law), Professor Ben Boer (Sydney Law School  & Deputy Director of the World Commission on Environmental Law) and Dean Emeritus Richard Ottinger of the Pace University Law School.

Hawai‘i Supreme Court Associate Justice Michael C. Wilson, who helped drive creation of Hawai‘i’s year-old Environmental Court, has been an important voice for Hawai‘i. During an evening program at the Richardson Law School highlighting the Early Career Group of the WCEL, Wilson told young lawyers and activists from around the world that “every one of you can make a difference” in focusing efforts on environmental causes.

“We’re passing on a planet that looks like it’s going to die,” said Wilson, “so anything you can do is important.”

Justice Benjamin called for members of Supreme Courts around the world to contribute to the new Global Judicial Institute for the Environment. He called Chief Justice Recktenwald, and Associate Justices Wilson, Sabrina McKenna and Richard W. Pollack of the Hawai‘i Supreme Court “true heroes in these efforts.”

Justice Benjamin also played an important role in a day-long workshop titled “Judges and Nature,” co-sponsored by the WCEL and UH Law School.  The workshop began at the Convention Center and ended at the Hawai‘i Supreme Court courtroom, including a number of panels with high-ranking legal experts from around the world. As part of that presentation, John C. Cruden, Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Justice Department, gave an electrifying account of the work of his division in the wake of environmental disasters such as the Exxon Valdez spill off the Alaskan coastline in 1989, and the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

In the BP case, Cruden said the company is paying at least $5.5 billion in civil penalties; $8.1 billion to restore the environment; $6 billion to pay for economic damage to the Gulf States or their local governments; and $60 million in further reimbursements for additional cleanup costs. His division has also been involved in legal action against Volkswagen for the recent diesel emissions scandal and the recall of 580,000 diesel engine vehicles with illegal emissions controls.

“It isn’t enough to stop (the pollution) and issue penalties,” Cruden told the assemblage at the Supreme Court. “We have to restore the environment and that’s complicated.” Cruden eloquently argued for the need to create a full-time Environmental Prosecutor. And he drew a compelling link between companies’ ethics and the quality of their workplaces.

“We have long thought that if companies mistreat their workers, they mistreat the environment,” he concluded.

As Associate Dean Antolini commented:  “The challenge now for the Law School faculty and students is to sustain the amazing momentum we have all gained from Hawaiʻi’s new pivotal role in this worldwide network of 10,000 committed conservationists.  The 10-day IUCN Congress provides an excellent foundation for exciting new opportunities for research, conferences, career choices, collaboration and inter-disciplinary connections on a wide array of issues, from the climate crisis to marine pollution, with our new partners from Africa, Asia, Europe and South America. This IUCN Congress has opened 10,000 new doors of global opportunity for our Law School and the University.”  

For more information, visit: https://www.law.hawaii.edu/