Toxic Crimes: Legal Advocacy and The Destruction of the Environment during Conflict (2019 – Present)

War often destroys the environment – either when armies poison foliage as a strategy or when toxins leak from undetonated explosives. While the United Nations and International Criminal Court have grown more attentive to the destruction of the environment during a war, courts seldom hold states and individuals accountable for the damage done to human health and ecosystems.

While climate change justice, climate litigation, and environmental human rights are growing fields, we know less of how rights advocates – lawyers, experts, and activists – promote the idea that the environment can be a victim and subject separate from the harm done to people. Without a clear understanding of how these rights advocates work, we risk undervaluing two issues: first, their impact on a new branch of international legal restrictions under “crimes against the earth.” Second, we risk undervaluing how they employ a range of strategies: monitoring polluted areas, representing victims at human rights courts, and making new connections between overlapping fields of international law.

Drawing on interviews and multi-sited fieldwork, the “Toxic Crimes” project (funded by a Kone Foundation Research Group Grant and the Academy of Finland) examines how legal experts and lawyers (a) monitor and limit the spread of pollution in areas of wartime environmental destruction, (b) help victims in polluted conflict zones by aiding them in their claims at regional human rights courts, and (c) seek to expand the rights of the environment by holding individuals accountable. PI: Freek van der Vet, Co-Investigator: Emma Hakala

Activists in International Courts (2017 – )

Together with Prof. Lisa Sundstrom (UBC, Political Science) we established the emerging international network of human rights practitioners and scholars who work on the involvement of NGOs and activists at international courts around the world (for instance, the European Court of Human Rights, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and the International Criminal Court.

Funded by a Canadian Social Sciences and Humanties Research Council’s “Connection Grant”, the project was launched in April 2017 with an international seminar at the University of British Columbia’s Liu Institute for Global Issues. The project is now operating under a Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s “Partnership Development Grant”. In November 2018, the project had its second meeting at the University of British Columbia. A third meeting was held in October 2019, at the University of Copenhagen’s iCourts. Additional panels were held at the Law and Society Association’s Annual Meeting (2016) and the International Studies Association Annual Conference (2018). For more information, please visit Legal Mobilization and International Courts (ActInCourts).

Frontline Legal Aid: Lawyers, International Litigation and Violent Conflict (2009 – 2019)

Based on interviews and fieldwork in Russia, Georgia, and Ukraine (between 2009 and 2018) I am working on a book manuscript “Frontline Legal Aid: Lawyers, International Litigation, and Violent Conflict” (supported by the Kone Foundation) examining how lawyers litigate at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) on behalf of internally displaced persons and families of the disappeared from the conflicts in Chechnya, Georgia, and Eastern Ukraine.

While legal mobilization scholars often argue that litigation opens access to justice to a growing number of marginalized victims, the book finds that access to the ECtHR closes for victims once lawyers move on to cases that can set new strategic precedents. NGOs and lawyers continue to lobby the ICC to start international criminal investigations.

Legal Mobilization under Authoritarianism (2016 – 2018)

How can lawyers still use legal mobilization strategies – using courts to advance social and legal change – in an authoritarian state where they face unfair courts, the random enforcement of laws, and shrinking resources? Drawing from interviews with Russian lawyers, this project (funded by The Kone Foundation and the Swedish Cultural Foundation) examines how lawyers use legal mobilization strategies against invisible (disinformation, secrecy, and surveillance) and visible forms of state coercion (random prosecutions and repression of civil society).

While we would expect that coercion deters the ability of these lawyers to do their work, the project concludes that it pushes them to reinvent practices that allow them to bypass repressive legislation and a biased criminal justice system. By focusing on legal mobilization in authoritarian regimes, this research goes beyond approaches that consider state repression as a factor that defines the behavior of human rights lawyers. Taking such an approach allows us to examine the professional development of lawyers under authoritarianism and their strategic impact on international case law and legal consciousness of local communities.