Saturday, November 28, 2009

Environmental Law Education

Hemantha withanage

People are bound to hundreds of laws, norms and policies which they are not seen or aware. Their behavior, livelihood and use of natural resources are controlled by those unknown laws. According to a well excepted legal maxim, the Court always considers that all people are aware of the laws. Unawareness is not an excuse before the law. But do all and every persons aware of the laws?

Environment is one of the most discussed subjects in the recent times which need citizens’ attention. Land, Water, Air are basic components that are essential for human beings and nature. Sustainable development needs a balance between the modern development and natural environment. Role of Environmental Law requires here to balance these two conflicting concepts. Yet, environmental law awareness is not equally exist and maintained in any society throughout the world. More educated people have a better understanding of the laws that govern their day today life. Meanwhile, marginalized communities who also don’t have adequate basic education suffer from lack of awareness. It is impossible to achieve Environmental justice and environmental governance unless the marginalized communities are equally making aware of their rights and those legislations, policies and norms that their lives are bound.

Sri Lankan law is mainly governed by the common law system. However Statutes and other written laws have been introduced to the law stream even under the civil law system. Accordingly, there are a number of new laws such as EIA Regulations, Industry Specific Standards and Regulations, Vehicle Emission Standards, and Noise Standards have been enacted in the environment sector. On top of these there are new Carbon Funds, Adaptation Funds and Conservation Levy, Genetically Modified Food labeling, which are not clear to common persons. Lack of awareness of the new laws and the important provisions of regulations is a major bottleneck for achieving benefits of these laws.

Sri Lanka does not exercise many access to information laws. This is a major shortcoming for achieving better governance. Other than in the Environmental Impacts Regulations, no other law provides mandatory public participation in decision making process in environmental field. The marginalized communities are unable to bring the environmental as well as fundamental rights violations to the courts due to lack of awareness and inadequate legal aid when they suffer from denial of access to information and participation.

Among the Universal principles of the Rule of Law, it is well accepted that the government and its officials and agents are accountable under the law, and the laws should clear, published, stable and fair, and protect fundamental rights, including the security of persons and property. However, in my experience most people including the government officers and law enforcers do not aware the laws adequately and accurately. The reasons may include lack of interest, legal education, technical language, and negative attitudes as well. It should be mentioned that the half knowledge of responsible government officers leads for many harmful and tragic ends too.

In a country like Sri Lanka, majority people still live in rural areas struggling with their livelihood. It is unfair to think that those people are adequately aware of the laws that brought by the legislature time to time, mostly to protect the rights and interests of the urban population. As an example most protected area laws have brought forward in order to protect the interests of the majority, but not even with the participation or consultation of the local communities who are the experts of the experience obtained by the nature .

However, the Rule of law does not work or make a mean if the people are ignorant and unaware of the laws.

Legal Aid and legal Education programmes initiated by Center for Environmental Justice with the support of World Justice project is targeting common citizens, CBO leaders and the local level government officers to enhance the citizens’ awareness on the rights and the available tools and mechanisms to achieve justice and Enhance legal education among the marginalized groups to ensure that they understand the rule of law and the role of judiciary and the legislature. This approach also provides free legal aid for the marginalized communities who cannot afford expensive legal expertise.

The legal education programs were held in eighteen places within a year. We have selected community leaders, civil society organizations, and the groups that are negatively affected (both environmentally and socially) from resources extraction, development projects or other ill environmental decision making. The workshops are organized in such a way to meet both legal & environmental education and identifying issues that need legal support or other assistance to follow the due legal and administrative processes. The persons, who have been encouraged to approach the court of law, were given free legal aid.

Unlike the other laws, Environmental law cannot be practiced unless the parties or legal practitioners have some basic understanding of the science of the law. Except public nuisance procedure all other legal instruments need scientific explanations to prove the impacts on the burden of balance of probability. Unlike decade back, Science plays a major role even in public nuisance cases. It is notable that, if the judiciary too has a better understanding of law and the doctrine of governance of the nature as well, no doubt the privileges entrusted by the law will be enjoyed by whole society. We have designed the legal education programs to overcome this problem to a large extent.

Most people in the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka have not had the opportunity to exercise many of the new laws due to war circumstances. Even the lawyers in those areas had no adequate awareness on the laws and experience of practicing. We hope to educate both lawyers and general public on what are the new laws in those areas which can be used for the protection of environmental rights and achieve environmental justice for all.

Yet, there is a question to answer. Does the Court of Law is predictable? Many participant say no. Long delaying of cases reduces the trust of approaching the courts. Unclear court procedures let the people move from one Court to another. Some people concerns of the independency of the Court of Law.

It is agreed that the laws and norms, the institutions and the process should respects to the basic better governance characteristics which are transparency, participation, Rule of Law/ Predictability and Accountability. The experience in the recent past shows we have yet to achieve better governance.

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