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What has international environmental law got to do with Soroptimists?

Professor Malgosia Fitzmaurice Protecting our Environment and International LawYou might be wondering, what has international environmental law got to do with Soroptimists or women’s empowerment.

Manashi Mohanti[1] said that women are “last consulted, first affected” on issues affecting their environment.   So, if we are to empower ourselves and other women, and leave a healthy planet for future generations, it’s important we know what’s going on with the environment and how environmental issues are regulated. Environmental protection and sustainability are also at the core of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which drive all of Soroptimist East London’s work.

So we were very privileged to hear from eminent environmental law Professor Malgosia Fitzmaurice[2], Chair of Public International Law at Queen Mary University of London at our June 2020 speaker meeting.

Are Soroptimists concerned about the environment?

The answer is a big yes! Prof. Malgosia’s online talk hosted by Soroptimist East London garnered one of our largest audiences in recent memory.  The attendees included Soroptimist friends from SI Costa Del Sol; SI Sutton Coldfield (this author’s hometown by the way!); SI Ipswich; SI Oxford, SI London Central and South West and SI Slough, Windsor & Maidenhead as well as non-Soroptimists.   How wonderful that technology can bring us together like this, as well as keeping our carbon footprint down!

What is international environmental law and what can it do about environmental destruction? 

Professor Fitzmaurice treated us to a masterful overview of international environmental law.  She covered a huge range of environmental topics, from rainforests to whaling to marine pollution and burials at sea.  She explained how international environmental law has evolved since human beings realised that our environment does not have an unlimited capacity to absorb pollution

She explained that the first environmental convention in 1902 was the Convention for Protection of Birds Useful for Agriculture.  Following World War II the International Convention on the Protection of Whales came into force in 1946.

Sharing her personal history with us, Prof Fitzmaurice recalled that as a young girl in Poland, the Baltic Sea was so polluted that young people could not swim in it.  In her view, marine pollution is an important issue which we don’t talk about enough. Today, she said, the overwhelming majority of marine pollution (some 80%) comes from the land. One reason for this is international law, particularly the MARPOL Convention 1973 (full name is the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships). Describing the International Maritime Organisation as a very efficient body, Prof Malgosia told us that because of MARPOL, only about 15% of marine pollution is from ships.

How about economic development, human rights and the environment?

Prof. Malgosia explained that, from the 1970s, developing countries became more involved in discussions on the protection of the environment. Increasingly there was an awareness of tensions between environmental protection and economic development, with richer countries being more polluting than poorer ones. This led to the development of the precautionary principle, a requirement of environmental impact assessments and the polluter pays principle.

What does international environmental law have to do with the sustainable development goals?

Prof. Fitzmaurice explained that Agenda 2030 and the sustainable development goals are the latest development in international environmental law. Protection of the environment, economic development and ensuring everyone can enjoy basic human rights are all interlinked. This is reflected in the 17 sustainable development goals and their 169 targets to be fulfilled by the year 2030.

Is there anything to be optimistic about?

Professor Fitzmaurice also reminded us to be optimistic and celebrate success when we see it. International law she said, is a young and complicated area of law, but it has resulted in successes.  There are around 600 global, multilateral or bilateral environmental treaties in the world today.  For example, repairing the ozone layer is a case where international cooperation and legislation achieved great results.  At the international level, there is also good cooperation on the ground between different countries in preventing trade in endangered species using the CITES convention. She also praised the London-based International Maritime Organisation (IMO) for being efficient and effective on marine protection. A topic we will undoubtedly return to in future.

Prof Malgosia emphasised the complexity of environmental law. She explained that international law mostly regulates what happens between different countries. Many environmental issues are only legislated at regional or national level, and different countries prioritise the natural environment differently.  It’s an economic resource as well as being a source of beauty and tranquility to be preserved, and these two factors are often in tension.  Pollution produced in one country can be exported to another.   Air and sea pollution cross borders and don’t affect everybody equally. This has been recognised in the “Polluter Pays Principle” and “Precautionary Principle” but many issues are governed mainly by national laws.  The Amazon rainforests are an internationally important place, and their destruction is having an effect on the whole world, but there is little that current international laws can do to stop it.

Professor Malgosia captivated her audience with her vast knowledge and fielded a wide range of questions on topics from wetlands to whaling.

Want to know more?

Find out more about the 2030 agenda for Sustainable Development here

Soroptimist East London incorporates environmental sustainability into our projects and works towards sustainable development. You can read about it in our blog What Does Soroptimist East London Do?  or have a look at our activities.

If you’d like to learn more about Soroptimist East London contact us!

We always welcome new members. And, to keep up to date with our events and latest news you can like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.

Mary Donovan, Soroptimist East London.


[1] Manashi Mohanti, quoted in Perspectives On Indian Women, edited by R.S. Tripathi and R.P. Tiwari, APH Publishing, 1999.

[2] Professor Małgosia Fitzmaurice holds a chair of public international law at the Department of Law, Queen Mary University of London (QMUL). She specialises in international environmental law; the law of treaties; and indigenous peoples. She publishes widely on these subjects. Professor Fitzmaurice teaches undergraduate and LLM modules in international environmental law and the law of treaties. She also supervises PhD students. She is Editor in Chief of International Community Law Review journal and of the book series published by Brill/Nijhoff Queen Mary Studies in International Law. She has also advised on the law of treaties and served as an expert in her areas of expertise.