Three-day symposium in Nairobi delves into role of judiciaries in tackling climate change in Africa

The deliberations were aimed at the possibility of developing an Africa-wide collaborative mechanism for sharing information and exchanging experiences in the area of climate justice

By Tony Malesi
Published: Friday 07 April 2023
President William Ruto of Kenya addresses delegates at the Symposium in Nairobi on April 3. Photo: @WilliamsRuto / Twitter

Plans for greening judiciaries across Africa are in top gear, focusing on building the capacity of judges to apply and enforce environmental laws, according to Africa Judicial Education Network on Environmental Law (AJENEL).

The three-day Third Regional Symposium on Greening the Judiciaries in Africa, courtesy of AJENEL, took place in Nairobi, Kenya (between April 3 and 5, 2023) after the COVID-19 pandemic delay. The first two regional symposia were held in Johannesburg and Maputo in 2017 and 2018, respectively.

The biennial conference, which President William Ruto of Kenya officially opened on April 3, was a hybrid symposium incorporating the Chief Justices Forum on Environmental Law Session, Plenary Sessions and the AJENEL General Conference.

In their Day 1 address, AJENEL called upon stakeholders to be keen on claims, disputes, standards, rights and responsibilities related to the environment, especially the use of land and natural resources. 

“It brings together more than 26 Chief Justices as well as judges, judicial officers, judicial educators, heads of judicial education institutions, practitioners and experts from the continent and beyond, to deliberate on Climate Change in Africa,” said AJENEL in a statement to press.

The conference — themed Strengthening the Role of Judiciaries in Addressing Climate Change in Africa — wouldn't have come at a better time. It's taking place after the United Nations Environment Programme 6th Global Environment Outlook identified climate change as one of the most pressing problems in Africa, posing serious health and economic challenges. 

“Addressing climate change requires concerted efforts by all actors, including judiciaries. Greening the Judiciaries in Africa is an ongoing initiative that focuses on building the capacity of judges in applying and enforcing environmental laws and promoting the rule of law in environmental matters,” AJENEL added.

This third symposium was anchored on the role of the courts in combating climate change and its impacts in Africa. It was intended to provide much-needed leadership in terms of policy direction from Chief Justices on enhancing environmental justice, particularly in disputes arising from climate change and its impacts.

President Ruto lauded the organisers in his remarks at the opening ceremony, noting that it was a step in the right direction for the continent. 

“Although climate change is a universal existential threat, there is good reason for Africa’s institutions and leadership to drive the agenda of mitigating its effects and eliminating the human activity driving it. This is critical because Africa is the most affected region, despite being the least polluting continent by far,” said Ruto.

He added that African livelihood, security and development are in danger and will remain at stake unless the continent collectively wages aggressive combat to reverse the situation through policies and other institutional action like judiciaries to implement mitigation, enhance adaptation and build resilience.

Ruto urged African judiciaries to champion further and enhance environmental justice, saying it is necessary to shape climate governance. Such a move would also enhance and promote accountability for environmental harm and facilitate collective action by stakeholders, he added.

“A few days ago, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution that the International Court of Justice renders an opinion obligating the world’s biggest emitters to take responsibility for their actions. I equally challenge our judiciary to be creative and imaginative and develop jurisprudence that will enhance climate action based on the polluter-pays principle,” he said.

Other stakeholders present, including Kenya’s Chief Justice Martha Koome, said the initiative will go a long way in helping the continent fight the effects of the ongoing climate crisis.

“Judiciaries across Africa are united by a shared commitment to protect and preserve our precious environment. We view hosting regional judiciary dialogues as a means of fostering the development of an African jurisprudence responsive to the continent's unique concerns and aspirations,” she said.

Koome said the symposium and subsequent ones will provide a platform for discussion on the experiences, challenges and potential solutions in adjudicating climate change claims amongst judges, practitioners and experts in the field. 

“It will be an opportunity to reflect on gains made in integrating environmental law and, particularly, climate change in judicial training amongst leaders of judicial training institutions. The symposiums will be looking to sustain the achievements made in previous symposia and agree on a thematic focus for the next biennium,” she said.

Chief Justices at the event interrogated and provided policy and strategic leadership and guidance on how judiciaries and other key actors should promote climate change-related adjudication in Africa, focusing on collaboration between the three arms of government.

They also deliberated on key resource, infrastructural and technological constraints that could hinder effective and just adjudication of climate change claims, according to AJENEL.

The deliberations were aimed at generating possible responses to these constraints, including the possibility of developing an Africa-wide collaborative mechanism for sharing information and exchanging experiences in the area of climate justice.

Also included in the sessions were presentations of relevant conference papers by select experts in the fields of climate change science, policy and law with the aim of enriching jurisprudence on matters of environmental justice. 

Some of the symposium’s objectives included identifying opportunities and measures for promoting climate change-related adjudication in Africa. Stakeholders also shared experiences, challenges, innovations and prospects in climate change-related adjudication.

The initiative's background

Initiatives and discussions around integrating environmental law into judicial education culminated in the 1st First Colloquium on Integrating Environmental Law Training in Judiciaries in Africa. This was held in Johannesburg, South Africa and saw the first AJENEL office bearers elected.

During the Colloquium, African countries that were present voted to unanimously adopt the 2017 Johannesburg Plan of Action. In August 2018, the 2nd Symposium was held in Maputo, Mozambique and the 2018 Declaration on Greening Judiciaries in Africa was agreed upon. 

AJENEL is an initiative established in 2017 to enhance judicial scholarship in environmental matters in Africa. The Network embodies the collective effort by the continent’s judicial institutions to mainstream environmental law under the clarion call Greening the Judiciaries in Africa.

Some of its core mandates include strengthening awareness among judges and judicial officers on existing environmental challenges and the growing jurisprudence in environmental law. 

It also aims at strengthening the capacities of judicial officers in identifying and responding to the primary needs of justice seekers on Environmental Justice, leading to more responsive institutions.

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