“To build together a better world”: A reflection on the King’s Transnational Law Summit

Screen Shot 2018-04-30 at 8.54.19 pmThe King’s Transnational Law Summit (KTLS), held in London this April and hosted by the Transnational Law Institute of King’s College London, was a rare event for a law school: a four-day meeting of hundreds of legal practitioners, scholars and students, among them a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and constitutional court judges, but also activists, musicians and artists – all dedicated to genuinely transnational dialogue on the quest for justice across borders and topics.

The theme of “The New Human Condition: Creating Justice for Our Future” had the necessary breadth for sessions which tackled every manner of contemporary injustice, as well as current legal, economic, social and technological developments which hold out the prospect of a better future.

For all the undoubted progress of the last decades, as a global community we are still confronted with the daunting challenges that JFK surveyed in 1960: “Uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus”. In addition, the interrelated crises of planetary boundaries such as climate change being pushed beyond safe operating spaces demands a more ambitious collective response, and new opportunities such as the protection of the high seas environment through genuine international cooperation are there to be taken, if there is the will. So KTLS was a timely and valuable opportunity to take stock of the latest thinking and innovative projects in this quest for justice across multiple fields.

The summit featured panel discussions, lectures and other events in the thematic areas of economic and environmental justice, health, technology, inequality, migration and knowledge and action. The sessions were not limited to state law and public international law, but also engaged with the diverse suite of private standards, informal and community norms and the many other interventions which contribute to transnational governance. As Fritjof Capra observed during a plenary roundtable on economic and environmental justice, “hundreds of systemic solutions have been developed by global civil society”.

The sessions on environmental justice focused on the many elements of the climate challenge, with panels examining justice in the Anthropocene, sustainable finance, environmental stewardship, climate migration and climate change in the courts, among other sessions. Our session on technology and climate change examined how law and regulation can maximise the positive contribution of clean energy and other technologies to preventing dangerous climate change and the ameliorating the impacts of climate change, but also touched on the new challenges that this technological transition gives rise to. Among the insights of the speakers:

  • Innovation is much more complex to implement than just technology transfer. However, the momentum to progress innovation through the United Nations is growing.
  • Technological transition is driven by values and society as well as economics. There is a need to think critically about how to bring equity into the implementation of the emergent technologies.
  • There is an important social dimension of the energy transition for governments, as workforces and regions face the threat of retrenchment and unemployment. The “lock-in effect” of old technologies must be addressed in translating the broad agreement on clean energy at the policy level into practical change on the ground.
  • As demand rises for particular resources which are important for renewable energy production, such as rare earths, there will be potential disputes between states over territory and potential impacts on Indigenous peoples.
  • In the quest to introduce sustainable technologies, the radically different business and regulatory models of different jurisdictions play a vital role. The constructs between the United States, EU and China are instructive in this regard.
  • With distributed renewable energy and the rise of “prosumers”, there is potential to develop “energy democracy” and empower citizens and local communities.
  • Litigating a complex energy dispute can be like trying to put toothpaste back into the tube. “How not to let the toothpaste out of the tube”, through well-functioning law, regulation and markets, is equally important.

I think one of the enduring messages from KTLS will be that, whether it be the exit from austerity in Europe or the unfinished long march to development (which must now be sustainable development) in many low- and middle-income economies, a common challenge for law is to be on the side of the people. All who make, interpret or enforce the law must resist the wilful blindness that Anatole France many years ago satirised as “la majestueuse égalité des lois, qui interdit au riche comme au pauvre de coucher sous les ponts, de mendier dans les rues et de voler du pain.” Or, as Kofi Annan put it in 1999, “when we read the [United Nations] Charter today, we are more than ever conscious that its aim is to protect individual human beings, not to protect those who abuse them”. The next challenge will be building upon the discussions and encounters of the Summit new projects and initiatives that contribute, in a practical way, to the goal of a more just future.

KTLS was an inspiring event and congratulations are due to Professor Peer Zumbansen, Dr Liliane Mouan and the entire organising team. It was also a tribute to the vision of the late Professor David D. Caron, who as Dean of the Dickson Poon School of Law oversaw the creation of the Transnational Law Institute and the rapid development of King’s College London as a leader in transnational law.

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