… A ‘Much-Needed Contribution to the Field of Study of Climate Change and Human Rights’
Sumudu Atapattu has extensively explored the link between human rights and environmental law in her research. In fact, she was one of the first people in the world to specialize in international environmental law.
Originally from Sri Lanka, Atapattu completed her master’s in law and Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge in England, where she concentrated on international environmental law. At the time, 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion occurred near Pripyat, Ukraine, which was part of the USSR.
“The Chernobyl disaster got me thinking about international principles, the environmental impact, the impact on people and the fact that no state was willing to sue the USSR at the time,” explained Atapattu.
At the time, textbooks didn’t even have a chapter on environmental law.
“It’s amazing how much this field has grown since then,” she said.
Environmental issues and human rights issues have always been looked at by institutions separately, said Atapattu.
“We tend to take a siloed approach to these issues, which has been problematic because we, until quite recently, did not apply a human rights framework to environmental issues,” she explained.
Using a human rights approach to environmental issues is incredibly important, not simply because victims are able to obtain relief.
“It’s important for policymakers to realize this link, and for local governments and consumers like ourselves to appreciate the fact that the choices we make could have an impact thousands of miles away, especially on poor, marginalized communities,” Atapattu noted.
A report from the United Nations (UN) Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on Australia in 2017 piqued her interest.
Its recommendations regarding climate change were far reaching, Atapattu explained. The Committee even went to the extent of recommending that Australia wean away from coal power plants and pay attention to the Sustainable Development Goals.
“We tend to take a siloed approach to these issues, which has been problematic because we, until quite recently, did not apply a human rights framework to environmental issues.”
“The mandate of these human rights bodies does not include environmental issues, so the fact that the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights made recommendations on climate change was really interesting to me,” she said.
It was so remarkable, in fact, that it inspired her latest book, “UN Human Rights Institutions and the Environment: Synergies, Challenges, Trajectories,” published this year by Routledge.
“UN Human Rights Institutions and the Environment” presents the first in-depth analysis of how UN human rights institutions and mechanisms have addressed environmental protection, sustainable development and climate change. It surveys the resolutions, general comments, concluding observations, decisions on individual communications and press releases. And it identifies principles that have emerged, explores the ways in which human rights charter-based and treaty-based institutions are interpreting environmental principles and examines how they contribute to the emerging field of human rights and the environment.
The latest work of Atapattu (who has written, edited or contributed to numerous books) is a “much-needed contribution to the field of study of climate change and human rights,” said Ambassador Dessima Williams. “The devastating impacts of climate change are worsening as actors around the world engage to safeguard human life and protect the rights of all, including those most vulnerable and exposed. Professor Atapattu helps the academic as well as the policy and activist communities better understand how a human rights framing helps victims of environmental degradation.”
When people read this book, Atapattu hopes to encourage them to look at the connections.
“Look at the link between what we are doing currently and the impact, not just on the current generation in other parts of the world, but entire generations in the future,” she urged. “It is important for us to recognize our responsibility to address these issues to lead a more sustainable life and make smart choices bearing the impact of our action on others in mind.”
This is especially important for those of us living in the global north, she said.
“Our carbon footprint is huge,” Atapattu explained. “This means that people in the global south are limited by what we are doing. It is important for us as individuals of the global north to recognize the link between our choices, our carbon footprint, and the impact on others. The choices we make on a day-to-day basis are not very sustainable and have a huge impact on future generations as well.”