Our understanding of the common good has developed considerably in the last few decades, with a much stronger conception of how actions affect the international community as a whole. This has required a shift in the way we balance short-term economic prospects against detrimental effects that may harm the ‘common good’ of millions. More than ever, we have recognised the essential nature of the environment to human health and the way that even minor degradations have begun to have calamitous effects.Isabelle Standen, former Student Co-Director, Human Rights and Environment Clinic
07 February 2023
Law and Geography students involved in Ugandan deforestation case
Law and Geography students, working through King’s Legal Clinic, have contributed original research to a ‘friend of the court’ submission, in a climate case before the Ugandan High Court.
Since the late 1980s, Uganda has lost over half its forest and woodland cover. Over 2.5% of the remaining cover is reportedly being cut down each year.
The case, which has been brought by the Ugandan Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) Greenwatch, challenges the Ugandan government’s failure to prevent deforestation.
The amicus curiae, or ‘friend of the court’ submission, has been filed on behalf of the National Association of Professional Environmentalists, and comprises a legal analysis, outlining the responsibilities of the Ugandan government, and a scientific report on the impacts of deforestation, including on climate change. Both the legal analysis and the scientific report were supported by students working through the Human Rights and Environment (HRE) Clinic, part of King’s Legal Clinic.
The amicus, which was filed by lawyers at the Network of Public Interest Lawyers, was based on research and drafting completed in 2022 by a team of six students and alumni, working with Sue Willman, Assistant Director and Supervising Solicitor, King’s Legal Clinic, and Alex Goodman and Yaaser Vanderman, barristers at Landmark Chambers.
The submission relates to four of the arguments in Greenwatch’s case. It argues that the Ugandan government “(holds) the forests on trust for the benefit of citizens of Uganda”; that it must “ensure the sustainable use of the forests”; that it is “obliged to protect the citizens of Uganda from the impacts of climate change”; and that it has a duty to “take remedial steps” to protect the “constitutionally protected right to life and a right to a healthy environment that the present and future generations of citizens of Uganda enjoy… (rights) which are engaged and breached by the destruction of forests and the resulting climate change.” The submission focuses particularly on the consequences of deforestation for indigenous people.
The student team looked at Ugandan constitutional law, the country’s international obligations and how certain environmental rights, like the right to a healthy environment, have been interpreted and applied by courts of neighbouring countries with similar legal systems.
Article 39 of the Ugandan Constitution, published in 1995, provides for the right to a clean and healthy environment. Under Article 50 (2), any individual or group can bring a legal action where there has been a violation of another person or group’s human right.
Key to the submission is the principle that the executive must act in the interests of the whole population, a point with relevance for similar cases in other jurisdictions. The submission argues that the forests are held in trust for all the people of Uganda and ‘for the common good’.
The scientific report was supervised by Dr Michael Mbogga, from the Department of Forestry, Biodiversity and Tourism, Makere University, Kampala, following intensive and detailed research by three postgraduate students - Naira Dehmel and Aliaksandr Ilyukevich, from the Department of Geography, King’s College London, and Ellie Wood, based at the University of Edinburgh.
The students reviewed and summarised key academic research and what is known as ‘grey literature’ - informal or uncompleted research and reports - to identify: the extent of forest loss in Uganda in recent decades; the extent to which measures that are taken to address that loss are succeeding or failing; the likely impacts of further forest loss on Uganda including through contributions to climate change; the consequences of climate change for Uganda and its people; the likely consequences of an absence of further action to stem deforestation.
They note that while the Ugandan forestry sector has progressive formal legislation and forest management programmes, sustained institutional challenges and shortcomings have limited their implementation.
This country is one of the most vulnerable places on our planet to climate change. Each year, Uganda faces the cascades of environmental hazards, including floods, landslides, heatwaves, droughts, and wildfires. Climate change implications also have negative effects on human health, particularly with vector-borne deceases becoming more prominent in the country. Land use change, particularly via deforestation and degradation, make up a large proportion of Uganda’s overall emissions contributing to climate change.Aliaksandr Ilyukevich, postgraduate student, Department of Geography
Both the legal submission and the scientific report also make reference to international agreements, and the ever-growing need for governments to make good on their commitments.
Uganda is a signatory to the Paris Agreement which aims to keep the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C, preferably 1.5 °C. An absence of further action on deforestation and forest degradation will undermine Uganda’s commitments to the Paris Agreement and exacerbate environmental hazards and risks resulting from climate change locally. On the contrary, effectively reducing deforestation and degradation while protecting and restoring forests can reduce emissions and enhance carbon storage and sequestration in Uganda, to meet its Nationally Determined Contribution to the Paris Agreement.Ellie Wood, postgraduate student, University of Edinburgh
Martha Lazanakis, who looked at international, regional and national laws regarding environmental preservation, sees litigation as an important tool, but one whose use also highlights the greater problem: “Litigation can provide much-needed publicity for pressing matters and help hold bodies accountable. However, litigation is action following wrongdoing and it is important to act preventively, and not merely act after the fact. This is especially so for the issue of environmental protection that requires acting now to prevent further environmental degradation in the future.”
The Human Rights and Environment Clinic, founded in 2020, is the first such initiative by a UK university legal clinic. The Clinic partners with barristers from Landmark Chambers, due to their leading reputation in environmental law and public law. Since 2020, Landmark’s counsel have provided supervision to Clinic students advising clients and communities affected by environmental harm in the UK on legal issues ranging from air pollution in south London to tin mining exploration in Cornwall. Lord Carnwath introduced a recent HRE Clinic event launching the Sundarbans Climate Justice Project.
The Human Rights and Environment Clinic has worked pro bono at a high level on evidence, legal research and argument on the Greenwatch amicus brief about deforestation in Uganda. The case could prove to be one of the most significant cases on the environment and climate change in Africa and I have been privileged to work with the King's team.Alex Goodman, barrister, Landmark Chambers
Being involved in this project has been highly rewarding. I wanted to be involved in a project where my research could have a positive, tangible impact and I was particularly motivated in this instance given the impact of natural disasters, namely wildfires, in my home-country Greece. Working on this submission has also given me hope that - collectively - we might all act towards a brighter future, one where respect for the environment and its inhabitants is paramount.Martha Lazanakis, student, The Dickson Poon School of Law
Naira Dehmel: “It was special to have worked in an interdisciplinary team united around such a timely and eminent cause. For us, it was a great learning experience in many ways. We learnt a lot about the situation of deforestation and degradation in Uganda from our own disciplinary perspectives, but equally we saw how our colleagues from other disciplinary backgrounds tackled the same context from a different angle. We hope our report will support the court in its judgment, and that its judgment will offer a brighter future for the forests and people of Uganda.”
The students involved in the friend of the court submission and expert report were: Martha Lazanakis, Riccardo Rimondini, Isabelle Standen and Nathan Whetton (all of whom have since graduated), Naira Dehmel, Aliaksandr Ilyukevich, Laurent Sammouri and Ellie Wood.