Last week, our Chairman Sir Graham Watson delivered an address to the International Parliamentary Alliance for Human Rights and Global Peace at their annual Conference on International Law & Human Rights, which took place this year in Strasbourg, France, from the 14th to the 16th of April. The conference was entitled "The Role of International Law to Promote Sustainable Development, Youth Empowerment & Women's Rights", and Sir Graham's speech explored the intersection of international law and sustainable development, while stressing the urgent need to address the threat of climate change through international and national legislative action.
In his address, Sir Graham set out a personal definition of the phrase "sustainable development", based on his experiences in the European Parliament, and upon the conversations had with fellow MPs, climate experts, and policy analysts over his career as a legislator. Rejecting vague definitions that posit a balance between the twin imperatives of economic development and environmental protection, Sir Graham argued instead that true sustainable development must be centred on equity, and integration.
Equity, in that it must distribute the benefits and costs of development fairly both between and within generations; and integration, in that it must seek to reconcile – rather than simply balance – the competing objectives of economic growth, social justice, and environmental protection.
Sir Graham argued that, for development to be sustainable, it must seek to accommodate three very different and apparently incompatible values: those of economic growth; environmental protection; and social justice (such as human rights, freedom of speech, the empowerment of women and girls, and so on). Since finding reconciliation amongst such competing claims is so difficult, often one is simply prioritised over the other two; for many governments and international treaties, economic growth trumps ecological and social concerns.
Yet, Sir Graham suggested, simply elevating one of the three values of environment, economic growth, and social justice over the others will not suffice. Indeed, the constant prioritisation of the economy - at the exclusion of all other values - is largely to blame for the looming climate catastrophe. Instead, an integration of all three should be sought, based on the fundamental recognition that they are mutually interdependent, self-reinforcing principles that cannot be sustained without the support of the others.
Sir Graham argued that, in a sense, the three values are three legs of the same stool. After all, what use is economic development in the present if it leads to a severely curtailed economic future, where food is scare, energy is prohibitively expensive, and the threat of border conflicts destabilises global markets? Denying the benefits of economic growth to the world's poor in the name of environmentalism would be equally counterproductive. Finally, a failure to provide an ecologically healthy future and ensure economic development would also imperil fragile advances in social justice around the world.
A full report on the event, which will contain a detailed account of Sir Graham's speech, will shortly be available from the IPAHP website.