I recently had the opportunity to take a break from our busy litigation docket for a few days and participate in a workshop with some truly inspiring lawyers and activists from across West Africa. The three day workshop, hosted by the Centre for Public Interest Law (CEPIL) and EarthRights International (ERI), brought together activists and lawyers from six countries – Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea—to discuss human rights and environmental issues arising out of extractive industries.
ERI has long recognized the importance and value of bringing together lawyers and activists from different countries to share strategies, build practical legal skills, and brainstorm creative opportunities for cross-border collaboration. For me, the opportunity to be a part of that, and to work with and learn from lawyers and activists from around the world who are fighting for what’s right despite limited resources and often great personal risk, is a true privilege.
It was especially exciting to reconnect with lawyers with whom we’ve worked over the years. Our friends from Law Edge (Nigeria) shared exciting and important updates about their landmark litigation against multinational corporations extracting oil in the Niger Delta on behalf of communities suffering from unabated (and illegal) gas flaring. After learning about this work at a similar workshop in Nigeria in 2011, ERI partnered with lawyers form Law Edge to file our first foreign legal assistance action (FLA) in the U.S. in order to obtain documents from Chevron relating to the harms of gas flaring to be used in the Nigerian litigation.
During this year’s workshop, our colleagues from Law Edge explained how they were able to effectively use these documents in their case, providing a successful example of cooperative litigation strategies that prompted enthusiastic and creative discussions about other ways the participants could work together. The participants also discussed learning from the Nigerian experience with gas flaring, identifying steps to stop or prevent the practice, and sharing advocacy strategies – especially for participants from Ghana, which may soon begin gas flaring, as well as other West African countries with unexploited petroleum reserves.
Amid sessions focused on technical skills-building, we explored opportunities for regional collaboration, with a particular focus on the Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and members of a sub-regional initiative, known as the Mano River Union CSO Platform, presented on possible strategies for working together on environmental rights issues common to most ECOWAS countries. Participants also discussed the ECOWAS Mining Directive and the ongoing process to develop an ECOWAS Mining Code and developed suggestions for how it could be strengthened.
The participating lawyers and activists also presented specific cases and issues they work on, shared strategies they had found effective, and discussed the major hurdles and risks they face as human rights and environmental defenders in their countries. ERI also shared some of the lessons and strategies we’ve learned in our cases, with a particular focus on the importance of having a multi-pronged advocacy strategy that extends beyond the courtroom.
I was inspired to see how many opportunities for collaboration were identified during the workshop, as well as plans to create a more formalized network of West African human rights and environmental lawyers and activists that would allow for greater sharing of experiences and expertise. When you’re in the business of holding powerful corporate and government interests accountable, the scales aren’t skewed in your favor. But transboundary litigation and legal advocacy strategies can unite communities, lawyers, and activists in their struggles and amplify their voices.
The workshop also included lawyers, activists and experts from other public interest organizations like Green Advocates (Liberia), Center for Environmental Impact Assessment (Ghana), Centre du Commerce International pour le Développement (Guinea), Groupe de Recherche et de Plaidoyer sur les Industries Extractives (Côte d’Ivoire), Network Movement for Justice and Development (Sierra Leone), Legal Resource Centre (Ghana), among others, as well as representatives of the Ghana Environmental Protection Agency and the Forestry Commission, who provided useful ideas for ways that public interest lawyers might be able to collaborate with the government to address environmental issues of common concern.
The March workshop was the first of two planned workshops, made possible thanks to funding from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA). I’m looking forward to the second workshop, which will take place later this summer.