Professor of Law and Theory, Cardiff University, Wales, UK and Adjunct Professorship at the University of Waikato, New Zealand

Anna’s work focuses largely upon questions related to the law’s construction of the human being and the human relationship with the world, broadly conceived. Her scholarship calls on insights from a range of disciplines despite being firmly located within a combination of critical legal theory and jurisprudence. She has a particular interest in the themes of legal subjectivity and vulnerability, locating these themes in relation to contemporary globalisation and to a central concern with the implications of the materiality of the living order – including the theme of embodiment. Her monograph on international human rights, published in 2010, was described as ‘marking a new start towards understanding the ontology of human rights.’  If you want to know more about Anna please visit her profile here.

1. What led you to work on human rights and the environment? 

I started my academic career (quite late in life) as a theory-leaning critical human rights law scholar. I have always been passionately concerned about patterns of injustice, and as my theoretical interests developed, I turned increasingly to thinking about the materiality at stake in such patterns. This kind of thinking leads quite naturally to thinking about the networked ‘environmental’ relationality of humans and non-humans and the porous continuities between different bodies of all kinds.

At around the time that I was thinking more deeply about these things, I was working alongside environmental lawyers in a human rights unit at Bristol UWE Law School, and one day,  after a conversation with Jona Razzaque, I decided to set up a scholarly journal to create a space in which issues at the nexus between human rights and the environment could be examined from a wide range of perspectives: mainstream and critical. That idea became the Journal of Human Rights and the EnvironmentIt was quite a struggle at first. Various publishers rejected the idea for being ‘too niche’. However, Edward Elgar Publishing could see the rising future, and the excellent Karen Morrow of Swansea University put her shoulder to the wheel alongside me — and here we are! At around the same time, I also initiated the Global Network for the Study of Human Rights and the Environment with fantastic colleagues at Bristol UWE Law School and Swansea University Law School. I suppose then I was well and truly thrown into the human rights and environment field! I have stepped back from the GNHRE work in recent years for health reasons, and am now very much enjoying seeing the expansion of the network and its initiatives under Erin Daly’s leadership and that of the fantastic team involved!

2. What have you been working on recently and/or what is your next big project? 

Recently, my work has become more deeply engaged with broadly New Materialist theories. My next big project will be to take that forward in some more developed way or other. I have some very early ideas to contribute to a growing effort among legal scholars to generate broadly New Materialist theories of law and ethics. I also have various publications on the go, including a co-authored book and a co-edited book. I very much hope that both publications will contribute to these important collective conversations. Nothing could be more important than re-storying law and tracing out proposals for the non-oppressive cultivation of responsibility towards ‘others’ of multiple kinds.

3. Which scholars, writers or activists do you think are not getting the attention they should be getting? 

That’s a very difficult question to answer. To my mind, Indigenous and other environmental defenders should be at the forefront of all our attention. These are people literally laying down their lives in some cases to defend a planetary future for all life — and they absolutely don’t get the attention they deserve, the protection they need, or the respect they are owed. Beyond that, it’s hard to say. There is so much excellent work going on — so many emergent conversations, critiques, and engagements with such a wide range of relevant issues and concerns. 

4. As briefly but as specifically as you can say, what are the most compelling challenges in human rights & the environment right now? Can you briefly describe any proposed solutions? 

The greatest challenge, to my mind, is the fundamental necessity of displacing old onto-epistemic assumptions that import the outmoded subject-object relations underlying the very destruction and dysfunction that makes our field so necessary and urgent in the first place. It is very difficult indeed to get beyond the ‘what does this mean in practice’? limitation on the imagination of lawyers. What the old assumptions mean in practice is tragically clear. We don’t yet know what a radical shift of onto-epistemology might mean for law, but that’s not a problem. We live, after all, in an age of immense complexity and uncertainty, and it’s vital to have the vision and courage to be tentacular, to creep along, to feel our way, and work things out as we go along. All our practice is theory-soaked anyway. It can’t be otherwise. So, the greatest challenge, for me, is to see less theory-aversion and more empirical and legal realism about complexity, systemic entanglement, the inappropriateness of Promethean legal aspiration. There is a deep need to change legal consciousness itself in relation to ‘our’ (human’) sense of situatedness in a world that emerges not just from human actions but from its own self-organizing dynamics. I guess it’s about letting go of the juridical ‘ego’ that always puts ‘us’ and our ‘problem solving’ at the centre.

Helpfully, there are a range of practices out there that are pointing potential ways forward: commons-based communities of various kinds, Indigenous decolonial initiatives, posthumanist and new materialist interdisciplinary projects, art-science collaborations, and much, much more. There are no easy answers, but there are far better questions to be asked and far better arts of living to be discovered. So, yes: a deep onto-epistemological shift is the most urgent necessity.

Astrid Milena Bernal

By Astrid Milena Bernal

Astrid Milena Bernal Rubio is a Colombian environmental lawyer and a PhD-Law student at the University of Melbourne - Climate Futures Center. Formerly LL.M student at Pennsylvania State University (concentrations in International Law and Energy and Environmental Law). She is also a lawyer from the Universidad Católica de Colombia, a Magister in Environmental Law from the Complutense University of Madrid and a Specialist in human rights and critical legal studies from the Latin American Council of Social Sciences (CLACSO) Latin American School of Public Policy- ELAP.

As part of the technical team of GFLAC (climate finance group for Latin America and the Caribbean), she supported the creation of the MRV system (monitoring, reporting and verification) for climate finance in Colombia. In addition, she has been a consultant for the WRI (World Resources Institute) and The Access Initiative (TAI), working as the National researcher for the Environmental Democracy Index (EDI). Also, she has worked as a consultant for AVINA Foundation, The Bogotá’s drainage and sewerage company (EAAB), Green Faith (NY based NGO), Brighter Green (NY based NGO) and worked as Campaign coordinator against unsustainable livestock production at the Global Forest Coalition. Astrid has worked as a lawyer and researcher on issues associated with public participation, access to information, forests, carbon markets, Just Energy transition and rights of indigenous peoples and rural communities in Colombia.

Astrid was a volunteer for the Network for Environmental Justice in Colombia and promoted the creation and growth of the climate justice division at the Environment and Society Association (AAS) of Colombia. Astrid was a senior research coordinator in a joint research project with UNICEF to contribute to the fulfilment of the SDGs (6), focusing its work on guaranteeing the rights of access to sanitation for rural, indigenous and Afro-descendant populations in Colombia. She is also part of the founders of the Colombian NGO- CAMBIUM (Climate, Environment and Research-Action Uniting Worlds). This organization aims to, directly and indirectly, influence processes carried out by civil society and decision-makers related to climate change.

Astrid also supported the work of Pivot Point and the CLARA group (Climate, Land, Ambition and Rights Alliance), promoting the understanding and participation of CSOs to ensure higher ambition of NDC (Nationally Determined Contributions) in Spanish speakers countries through the website

Astrid was a research assistant at Penn State University identifying how different kinds of transboundary river basin organizations have written and used dispute resolution mechanisms in both the bilateral agreements between the US, Mexico and Canada (NAFTA-USMCA) and the Autonomous Binational Authority of the Basin of Lake Titicaca (Bolivia, Peru).

Astrid was one of the members of the core team in the Global Network for Human Rights and the Environment (GNHRE), and she is part of the global network of environmental lawyers (ELAW). In her free time, she collaborates as a volunteer for The Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition- CAIR coalition.