The role of women lawyers in achieving sustainable development

[Originally published in ‘El País’]

“Humanity is at a turning point in history. Between and within nations, we are faced with perpetuating disparities with worsening poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, and with the continuing deterioration of the ecosystems in which our well-being depends. However, if environmental and developmental concerns are integrated and given greater attention, basic needs can be met, living standards for all can be raised, ecosystems can be better protected and managed, and a more stable and prosperous future can be achieved. No one nation can achieve these goals alone, but together we can do it with a global partnership for sustainable development.”

This text is now 30 years old and is the beginning of the preamble to the so-called Agenda 21 adopted at the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. This agenda sought to prepare the world for the challenges of our current century by creating a global consensus and political commitment at the highest level on environmental development and cooperation.

Even then, the role of women in achieving sustainable development was highlighted, including objectives and measures to achieve it. Objectives that ranged from increasing the number of women in decision-making, planning, technical advice, management, and outreach positions, to removing constitutional, legal, administrative, cultural, social, economic, and behavioural barriers to women’s full participation in decision-making to achieve sustainability in both public and private spheres.

Women in the legal field play a key role in ensuring that environmental regulations are properly enforced and upholding the rule of law, which is essential for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

 Unfortunately, what was expressed in 1992 is still valid today. But why have we made so little progress in achieving sustainable development? The answer to that question is due to the fact  that the role of women in achieving it has hardly been taken into account. To make any progress we must consider the following:

  1. The need to preserve natural resources for the benefit of future generations (intergenerational equity).
  2. The objective of exploiting or using natural resources in a sustainable, prudent, rational, and appropriate manner.
  3. Equitable use of natural resources, which implies that the use by one state must take into account the needs of other states (intragenerational equity).
  4. The need to ensure that environmental considerations are integrated into economic plans, programs, and projects, and that development needs are considered when implementing environmental objectives.

However, the advances of the last three decades have been possible thanks to the silent performance of unknown women who, on a daily basis and through the exercise of their professions, have contributed to this progress.

We are almost at the halfway point to achieve the SGDs. Many of these refer to the environmental pillar of the development trinomial. At the same time, targets included in other goals are closely linked to environmental protection, such as target 3.9 on environmental health in the goal on health and well-being, or targets 8.4 and 8.9 which refer to efficient and respectful production, consumption, and sustainable tourism, respectively, included in the SDG on decent work and economic growth, to cite a few examples.

The achievement of these goals and targets is closely linked to respect for and compliance with international conventions on environmental protection, which in turn have been transposed into our legal system. For this reason, women in the legal sphere play a fundamental role in ensuring that environmental regulations are correctly applied, upholding the rule of law, an essential condition for achieving the SDGs.

This work is not necessarily carried out in high-level positions, however, their contribution is essential for a world in which the interactions between the Earth’s ecosystems are taken into account. This has just been recognized in Nairobi by the 5th United Nations Environment Assembly in its declaration on strengthening action for nature to achieve the SDGs. Indeed, this declaration also acknowledges that the effective implementation of these actions requires a coherent and facilitating legal framework at all levels, from international to local, including good governance and compliance with the law.

At the International Institute for Law and the Environment (IIDMA), an organization driven by women lawyers, we have been working for 25 years to ensure that the commitments related to the environmental dimension of sustainable development are properly implemented in order to contribute to the protection of our planet.

Ana Barreira

Ana Barreira es directora y abogada del Instituto Internacional de Derecho y Medio Ambiente (IIDMA). LL.M en Estudios Jurídicos Internacionales (New York University) y en Derecho Ambiental (London University).