By Stepan Wood*
The Centre for Law & the Environment, the Global Network for Human Rights and the Environment and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, Dr. David Boyd, are partnering to offer university students around the world an opportunity to contribute information and ideas to an upcoming report by Dr. Boyd to the UN Human Rights Council on the role of business in relation to the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
The 2023 Green Rights and Warrior Lawyers Inspirathon is now underway and open for registration. It will crowdsource creative answers to the question: What role does business play in advancing or abusing the human right to live in a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, and what can national or international law do about it?
The Inspirathon is open to university students at any level of study in any discipline, anywhere in the world. Part “researchathon,” part “hackathon,” it gives students an opportunity to contribute to understanding and solving real-world problems of environmental rights and justice in collaboration with courageous and creative “Warrior Lawyers” who are at the forefront of efforts to advance “Green Rights” through law. It is part of the Centre for Law & the Environment’s multimedia Green Rights and Warrior Lawyers project, housed at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.
This year’s Inspirathon continues the partnership between the GNHRE and the Centre for Law & the Environment that began with last year’s inaugural Green Rights & Warrior Lawyers Virtual Academy and Inspirathon. The 2022 Inspirathon was a collaboration with renowned Philippine environmental lawyer and activist Tony Oposa, who is another of the Centre for Law & the Environment’s featured “Warrior Lawyers.” Students researched examples and brainstormed ideas for how to transform unsustainably exploited Exclusive Economic Zones into sustainably stewarded “Enlightened Ecosystem Zones.” This event was part of Tony’s mandate as the Normandy Chair for Peace, the motto of which is “We will have peace on Earth when we will have peace with the Earth.”
The 2023 Inspirathon is a partnership with renowned Canadian environmental lawyer David Boyd. Dr. Boyd is a professor in UBC’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment. He has devoted his professional life to advancing human and ecosystem health through law. He is a leading writer on the human right to a healthy environment and rights of nature. You can read about his accomplishments and why he deserves the moniker “Warrior Lawyer” in this blog post.
The Inspirathon will support Dr. Boyd’s work as UN Special Rapporteur to advance the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment around the world. 160 countries, representing more than 80% of United Nations member states, now recognize a healthy environment as a legally enforceable right.
This right achieved a major victory when it was recognized as a fundamental human right by the United Nations General Assembly in 2022.
Much of Dr. Boyd’s work has focused on how states can better understand and fulfill their obligations in relation the right to a healthy environment. The role that business enterprises play in relation to this right needs more attention. That’s where the Inspirathon comes in.
Dr. Boyd is currently preparing a report on businesses and the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, to be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2024. He will soon issue an official call for input to this report.
The 2023 Inspirathon gives university students a direct route to participate in this important process. They will provide inputs for Dr. Boyd’s report in the form of case studies of the role of business in relation to the human right to a healthy environment around the globe.
The case studies will supply evidence of how businesses advance or undermine the human right to a healthy environment, and propose solutions for how national or international laws can support businesses’ responsibility to respect the human right to a healthy environment.
This year’s Inspirathon builds on earlier researchathons organized by Dr. Boyd that crowdsourced hundreds of valuable examples for his reports to the UN Human Rights Council on environmental “sacrifice zones” and good practices in implementing the human right to a healthy environment.
Everyone who participates in the Inspirathon will have their names recognized in Dr. Boyd’s UN report, unless they indicate that they prefer to remain anonymous.
The Problem: Business and the Human Right to a Healthy Environment
Businesses can have a profound impact on human rights, wherever they operate. Their legal responsibilities in this field are undergoing rapid evolution. The current understanding is reflected in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, adopted in 2011.
According to the Guiding Principles, enterprises have a responsibility to respect human rights wherever they operate and whatever their size or business. This means that they must conduct due diligence to identify their actual or potential impacts on human rights, prevent and mitigate violations, and address any adverse human rights impacts they are involved with either directly or through their business relationships. They must also establish or participate in effective grievance mechanisms for anyone adversely impacted by their operations.
Businesses are implicated in many pressing environmental problems, including deforestation, species loss, plastic pollution, tailings pond collapses, oil spills, electronic waste, and “forever chemicals.” Many of these problems, in turn, infringe people’s right to live in a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
Businesses can also play constructive roles in securing the right to a healthy environment by conducting human rights due diligence, taking responsibility for their human rights failures, participating in remedial processes in good faith, changing or abandoning harmful activities or product lines, influencing other actors with whom they have relationships to do the same, supporting human rights-protective legal or policy reforms throughout their sectors, or making protection of human rights and the environment, not profit maximization, their core mandate.
In short, there are both “bad news” and “good news” stories to be told about businesses and the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
The Inspirathon will crowdsource these stories in a common format that is supported by evidence, allows comparison, and identifies promising legal and policy solutions.
Open to all students, the Inspirathon will not only produce a range of ideas to be included in Dr. Boyd’s report to the UN, but act as an inspiration in miniature for the sort of global collaboration needed to tackle these issues.
How to Get Involved
To learn more and to register, students can visit the Inspirathon webpage. Registration is open now. Case study submissions are due November 6. Don’t miss this opportunity to contribute to an important report to the UN Human Rights Council!
* Stepan Wood is a Professor, Director of the Centre for Law & the Environment, and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Law, Society & Sustainability at the Allard School of Law, in the University of British Columbia, on the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh nations in what is now called Vancouver, Canada.