CISDL changing world

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McGill Reporter
October 24, 2002 - Volume 35 Number 04
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CISDL changing world

Ebullient from their recent success at the Johannesburg, South Africa, World Summit for Sustainable Development (WSSD), Aug. 26 to Sept. 4, Marie-Claire Segger and Ashfaq Khalfan finish each other's sentences and joke as only long-term friends do. Segger and Khalfan are directors and two of the founders of McGill's spanking new Centre for International Sustainable Development Law (CISDL), which is forging the international legal agenda that takes into account the triad of human rights, environment and trade.

Photo CISDL directors Ashfaq Khalfan and Marie-Claire Segger
PHOTO: Owen Egan

The Reporter caught up with the dynamic duo when they were recently in Montreal hiring interns for the centre. Currently, Khalfan lives in Ottawa and Segger lives in Connecticut with her new Yale-student husband. Somehow she found time to marry him in what was a very busy summer.

June saw the international communitys' warm welcome for their official centre launch at their Sustainable Justice 2002 conference in Montreal. Then CISDL was a partner at a WSSD-endorsed conference a week before the Summit in Durban, South Africa, EnivroLaw 2002. And in an official side event of the Summit, they launched those conferences' results.

Sustainable development is defined as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." The three dimensions to consider -- social, environmental and economic -- are uneasy legal bedfellows in a world of conflicting values.

CISDL is the voice of balance in a cacophony of credos, and the authority on international laws -- crucial in a world where governments can change hands so quickly that politicos can't keep up with the previous regime's treaties. The law community trusts their organization of scholars from around the globe, Khalfan said, because "we're trying to find solutions, not just pushing our own agenda."

"The World Summit is a bit like a trade fair," Segger said. "There are 25 different things going on at once, you have business people in one place, radical environmentalists in another." Amidst all the activity, CISDL was taken very seriously. Of the Official Side Event, Segger said, "We had a room booked for 75 people and over 300 showed up. It was a sea of yellow badges and grey badges," she recalled, referring to the badge colours worn by government and inter-governmental representatives respectively.

CISDL set out to influence negotiations by holding events, forging partnerships, and providing legal advice to delegates, through workshops and briefings. Khalfan said people would approach them, saying, "We support this issue, give us some legal backing."

The CISDL four-page legal briefs on the current state of international laws were taken by delegates from countries as diverse as Norway, Indonesia, Switzerland and Panama to educate their own ministers of justice.

As well, CISDL distributed their freshly published 200-page manual for legal capacity building, Weaving the Rules for Our Common Future: Principles, Practice and Prospects for International Sustainable Development Law. This unprecedented book on sustainable development law was written by Segger, Khalfan, and Salim Nakhjavani, CISDL lead counsel for crosscutting issues, and will be available on their website to be used by courts, governments and civil society around the world to train legal actors and clarify development issues.

CISDL formed a Type II partnership -- an agreement between states, inter-governmental organizations and civil society to implement the goals of Agenda 21 and the Johannesburg Programme of Action -- with the International Law Association and the International Development Law Institute. This was presented as part of the UN's official agenda. "We were given a half hour in front of the UN, in a small room," said Segger. "It was only afterwards we realized we'd been on big screens in front of tens of thousands of people." A "friend" of Khalfan's thought it would be funny to call him on his cell phone during the presentation.

That Partnership Agreement means that CISDL is embarking on a five-year project to develop training materials for international sustainable development law, with Yale, Cambridge and universities in Uganda, Costa Rica and Sri Lanka among others. They'll hold two workshops a year, one in Montreal, the other in a developing country. That balance between hemispheres ensures they "won't end up with a bunch of Northern scholars telling developing countries what to do," Segger said. Developing country scholars need access to information; developed country scholars need a broader global perspective.

Khalfan is excited to see human rights brought into sustainable development -- governments now recognize that human rights and environment issues are linked, which wasn't the case at the Rio World Summit 10 years ago. Developing country candidates finally had a voice at this Summit, with economic and social concerns side by side. In general, the Summit produced cooperation between North and South, and between big corporations and non-governmental organizations. When Greenpeace and international business communities can sit at the same table, some progress is being made.

"Environment people are forced to face the poverty agenda," Segger said -- a southern government has to be able to say, "Thirty million people of mine are starving. Before I protect your park, I want them to have food and clean water."

Although the Summit was not a sexy media success overall like the Rio Summit was, Segger and Khalfan believe it will lead to change. For instance, an agreement on drinking water targets was achieved, and the notion of common but differentiated responsibilities has taken hold in the global community (for example, India should not be asked to pay the same contribution as the United States for the Carbon fund). Segger and Khalfan are pleased with the Summit's outcome. "We walked away with a strategy and action plan. We'll show up in New York in front of the UN once a year," Segger said.

Khalfan's most memorable moment came when he was speaking on the same human rights panel as Honourable Justice of South Africa, Albie Sachs -- "it was humbling." "World Summits change your life," Segger said. When she sat down with IDLI and ILA to go over the UN-sanctioned plan of action for training legal scholars in sustainable development, she suddenly realized, "Oh my goodness, we're changing the world."

For more information on CISDL, visit their website:

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