Lawyers, Stanford professors discuss Supreme Court ruling on environmental law and human rights

May 29, 2019, 12:31 a.m.

Stanford professors and representatives from EarthRights International and the Accountability Council, both human rights-focused legal nonprofits, gave a panel discussion Tuesday on the Feb. 27 Supreme Court decision in Jam v. International Finance Corporation, which could strengthen individuals’ ability to hold international organizations accountable through legal mechanisms in the future.

Fisher joined Natalie Bridgeman Fields, founder and executive director of the Accountability Counsel, Kindra Mohr, policy director at the Accountability Counsel and Michelle Harrison, a staff attorney at EarthRights International who worked on the Jam case, on a panel moderated by Stanford International Relations lecturer Erica Gould.

The Jam v. International Finance Corporation case concerned a polluting coal-fired power plant in Gujarat, India, which harmed local waterways and farmland, as well as the health and jobs of people in the area. The International Finance Corporation (IFC), which helped fund the plant, is supposed to prevent its development projects from causing harm and human rights violations. Even after local fishermen (one of whom is Jam) and farmers told the IFC’s accountability branch about the violations, however, they continued.

The plaintiff fishermen and farmers eventually turned to EarthRights International and brought the suit through U.S. courts in another attempt to hold the IFC accountable. Stanford Law professor Jeffrey Fisher successfully argued the case on Oct. 31, 2018. The U.S. Supreme Court voted 7-1 in favor of Jam.

The event, sponsored by the Handa Center for Human Rights and International Justice, the Program in International Relations and the Stanford Environmental Law Society, took place in Encina Commons.

Fields began by discussing the history of accountability mechanisms for international organizations such as the IFC, which is the private-sector branch of the World Bank, and multilateral development banks such as the European Investment Bank, Asian Development Bank and African Development Bank.

She said the first accountability office was created at the World Bank in 1993, after which other banks developed similar offices, but the organizations did not always enforce accountability in practice.

People complained that projects hurt their health and the environment, yet the leaders of international organizations were often able to ignore their calls for change.

Mohr called the Jam decision evidence of a “‘second coming’ of the accountability frameworks of the early ’90s.” In 2019, the international community needs to make sure accountability frameworks are truly working and fix them if they prove ineffective.

Fisher described the arguments he presented to the U.S. Supreme Court, noting that he appeared before them shortly after the court faced “a heated public debate” about their legitimacy in the wake of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court justice confirmation.

Fisher said he formulated his arguments in terms of looking at the text of a statute and considering “the plain meaning of its terms.” His team also successfully lobbied the Department of Justice to file a brief on their side of the case.

In addition, Fisher and Harrison both noted that just because litigation eventually worked for the Jam side does not mean international organizations should expect a flood of lawsuits in response. Suits are difficult and costly, and many people will continue to prefer working with local accountability ombudsmen.

Harrison emphasized that international organizations must understand they are not above the law.

“Institutions who know they could be subject to outside scrutiny and outside accountability, act like it,” she said.

The possibility of lawsuits and bad press can help keep convince huge institutions like the IFC to act responsibly.

IFC CEO Philippe Le Houérou released an op-ed in April stating his commitment to working on accountability, a move the panel considered significant even though he did not specifically reference the Jam v. IFC decision.

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