Conference on sustainability and human rights

What are the intersections of human rights and sustainability, and how do the two agendas meet? This three-day conference invited close to a hundred participants to examine the topic from a variety of angles.

Group photo of the conference participants.

Image credit: NCHR

The Research Group on Human Rights and Sustainable Development organized a conference on the “Intersection between Human Rights and Sustainability as an Evolving and Justiciable Concept” from 8 to 10 June 2022. The conference was attended by close to a hundred invited speakers, academic researchers and external participants, both in person and online. 

The future of sustainability

The conference started on 8 June with an Opening Ceremony, attended by keynote speaker Sumudu Atapattu, jurist in human rights, environmental and climate change law at the University of Wisconsin, USA. She spoke about the “Utopic or Dystopic Future of Sustainability”. She highlighted both the positive developments that have resulted from the recognition of the need for sustainable development, as well as the capitalist world order which continues to undermine sustainability.

Image of panel discussion with Sumudu Atapattu and Bård Anders Andreassen seated at a table

The discussions laid the groundwork for the rest of the discussions throughout the week, and highlighted how sustainability and sustainable development is linked to all the major crises facing the world today.

The "balancing act" of sustainable development

The keynote lecture was followed by a public panel discussion between three eminent thinkers on sustainable development:  Surya Deva, Professor at the Macquarie Law School and Member of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights (2016-22), Wouter Vandenhole, Holder of the human rights chair at the Law Faculty of the University of Antwerp, and Jemima Garcia-Godos, Associate Professor in Human Geography, University of Oslo. The discussion, moderated by Professor Anne Hellum of University of Oslo, centered on “The 'Balancing Act' of Sustainable Development”.

The speakers provided contrasting views, highlighting different normative and practical challenges, including systemic challenges such as the global capitalist free market economy and local level power relations, which undermine sustainability. They also discussed how sustainability challenges human rights law, and how human rights law may provide some of the tools necessary for achieving sustainable development, through rethinking both procedural and substantive human rights in the context of sustainability.   

Sustainability and human rights defenders

A further highlight of the conference was a discussion with Mary Lawlor, the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders.

Mary Lawlor and Sandra Petersen in conversation

She spoke about her work in the field, the specific vulnerability of specific categories of human rights defenders, such as environmental, indigenous peoples’ rights and increasingly also children as human rights defenders, particularly in the context of climate change. She also stressed the importance of independent academic research for supporting the work of the UN. 

Panel discussions on academic papers

The second and third days of the conference were dedicated to various panel discussions, during which participants from across the world presented academic papers on the linkages between human rights and sustainability from a range of different perspectives.

While some focused on the concept of sustainability and how it is evolving, others focused on empirical case studies and power relations within sustainability in practice, or the emerging opportunities for litigating sustainable development, including through climate litigation. There were also discussions about new emerging ideas and how these are and should be linked to human rights law, for example degrowth and rights for nature. The discussion also turned to the post-2030 agenda, and the role that human rights should play in developing the next global framework on sustainability.

Following these fruitful discussions, efforts are underway to publish a selection of the papers in a journal or book format within the context of the newly established Research Group on Global Challenge in Human Rights. 


The conference was conceptualized and organized by the PhD candidates of the Research Group, Elsabe Boshoff, Dinie Arief and Sandra Petersen, with the support of research assistants Ony Ratsifandrihamanana and Caroline Zwingelstein, the full backing and support of the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights, in particular the Director, Prof. Bard A. Andreassen, and with volunteers from the Centre’s Master’s Programme on the Theory and Practice of Human Rights. 

Images sustainability conference
Tags: Human rights, Sustainability, NCHR, Human Rights Defenders, Sustainable development, Sustainable Development Goals
Published June 16, 2022 2:42 PM - Last modified June 16, 2022 2:43 PM