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Out of Sight and Out of Reach? Improving the Sustainability of the World’s Data Centres

Étienne F. Lacombe is a first year student at the Faculty of Law. He majored in criminology and political science before beginning his studies at McGill.

When I was growing up, the family movie night involved walking to the store and picking out a film for the evening. Times have changed. Fast forward a few years and I couldn’t rent a movie if I tried. The Blockbuster by my house has long since reinvented itself as a fast food joint and I no longer own a disc drive. The shift away from physical media and toward retrieving data remotely has had an obvious impact on the movie night experience but its significance for the environment is more obscure.

Data from the US draws a clear picture of movie streaming’s scale and energy consumption. In 2011, Americans used enough power to sustain 175,000 households for a year by streaming 3.2 billion hours of video. While the devices with which users view online movies play a large part in terms of energy consumption, it is also worth reflecting on the hidden components that affect the sustainability of movie streaming and remote data retrieval more broadly. I have relied on American statistics below for consistency and due to the accessibility of sources.

 Data Centres: Humming in the shadows

Server racks in a data centre. Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.

Server racks in a data centre. PPhoto courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.

Data centres big and small contain servers and other equipment that allow data to be stored and accessed remotely. These information warehouses require vast amounts of electricity both to run their equipment and to prevent it from overheating. Data centres use about 100 to 200 times more electricity per square foot than a modern office building. In 2010, American data centres already consumed 2% of that country’s electricity. If that figure does not seem substantial, consider that these data hubs are among the fastest growing electricity consumers in the US. By 2013, American data centres consumed the equivalent annual output of 34 large coal power plants and it is estimated that this consumption will increase to the equivalent output of 50 power plants by 2020.

 An alarming trend?

As the Internet continues to grow, so too does the shift toward video streaming. Earlier this year, Cisco estimated that video on demand traffic will double by the year 2018. This trend is not negative in and of itself. The CO2 emissions associated with streaming movies is still lower than that of watching a DVD once manufacturing, shipping, and driving to the store are taken into account. Of course, the convenience of streaming videos from home means that people will probably watch more movies than if releases were only available on DVD. Nonetheless, since the trend toward remote data retrieval does not appear to be reversible, we are left to ponder the question of how to mitigate its energy impact.

 Regulation and Beyond

Public regulation appears to be stuck at the periphery of the data centre consumption issue. Governments can continue to perform a traditional monitoring role, as some American states have done by regulating the use of backup diesel generators at individual data centres. The key to more meaningful regulation involves gaining knowledge of the operating procedures within each server facility. This may prove a challenge where the private and highly technical nature of data centres makes it difficult to assess their consumption. If the US government could not determine how much power its own data centres use, it is doubtful that it could pinpoint performance issues within private centres.

Indeed, many potential energy efficiencies within data centres can only be identified and applied by the private entities that run them. For smaller companies hosting their own servers, this may mean outsourcing their data storage needs to more efficient large-scale facilities. For larger centres, investing in internal diagnostics to detect comatose servers would be preferable. Comatose servers are those units that continue to operate and consume electricity indefinitely while doing very little, often because the information they contain is no longer relevant. In any case, corporate policies that voluntarily disclose the energy and carbon performance of individual data centres would provide an enticement for their sustainable operation.

Diagram of the Utah Data Center. Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.

Diagram of the Utah Data Center. Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.


The family movie night will never be the same again. The video streaming trend shows no sign of slowing down and, in any case, it is not inherently more harmful than watching the same movies on DVD. What may worry some sustainability advocates is the government’s limited power in controlling the energy use of individual data centres. Even if the government does not scale back its traditional watchdog role, meaningful improvements in consumption efficiency will require an active commitment on the part of private data centre operators.

Reinventing Mining: are cooperatives the answer?

Brodie Noga is in his second year of law school and is interested in everything to do with mining. When not busy studying how rocks are taken out of the earth he enjoys climbing on them as well.

Dry-drilling in Bolivian mining cooperatives.
Photo credit: Brodie Noga, 2011

Outside of war, few other human activities are the site of as much strife as mining. From the mit’a of 16th century Upper Peru, the gold and silver rushes of the 19th century, to the Ok Tedi mine in Papua New Guinea, the history of mining is a tale of human struggle over who will profit, who will be harmed, and who will live with the consequences. This history persists despite the staggering engineering problems we’ve overcome. If there is ore hidden too far away we will literally move mountains to reach it, but a just and equitable system of mining remains elusive.

A solution is needed. With the world’s population rapidly industrializing and the mines that feed the global commodity chain growing rapidly in both number and scale, the question of how we can create an ethical and sustainable practice of mining is among the most pressing we face as a species.

While conducting ethnographic research in Bolivian mining cooperatives, I became convinced that a critical aspect of an answer to this question will depend on re-thinking the fundamental structure of how we do the business of mining. Cooperatives are no silver bullet -we’ll slay no monsters today- but they offer real and tangible means of addressing the root causes of mining conflicts, in particular by giving local communities real power and real stakes within a mine’s operation.

The Mining Cooperative

Mina Rosario cooperative in Potosí, Bolivia.
Photo credit: Brodie Noga, 2011

The earliest Bolivian mining cooperatives emerged in the 1930s out of the blood, dust, and thirst of the Chaco War. The war weakened the power of the ruling elites, allowing men and women to take over abandoned mines in the once famously wealthy city of Potosí. Working independently was a way to escape the exploitative labour practices of private mining companies and provided a steady source of income. Cooperatives provided a simple organizational structure for individual miners to designate who had rights to what section of a mine and to share common costs; though unlike other cooperatives, revenues were not shared among members. However, cooperatives remained relatively small players until the successive failures of the Bolivian state-owned mining company, COMIBOL, through the 1950s–1990s, which forced families dependent on mining to take over recently closed mines on their own.

Today, mining cooperatives represent the majority of the workforce in Bolivia’s mining sector, are represented by a national federation FENCOMIN, have votes on COMIBOL’s board of directors, and operate numerous small to mid scale mines. While the mining cooperative model is strongest in Bolivia, it is not endemic to it, and cooperatives form an important part of the resource sector in countries across the world, including EcuadorMaliGhanaSierra Leone, and Papua New Guinea.

What do cooperatives have to offer?

Even the most modest of modern mining operations require significant high-risk investments and as a result must offer high rates of return to attract financing. Because of this, mining companies are overwhelmingly headquartered in the centres of mining financing (Toronto and Vancouver) where they are able to consolidate global capital flows. This has several implications for communities affected by mining operations. First, the ultimate decision making power is located thousands of miles form where impacts are felt. Corporate structure also provides no formal means of incorporating local political agency outside of voluntary Community Social Responsibility (CSR) policies. The effects of weakened political agency are exacerbated in situations where the community affected is politically marginalized and vulnerable to state violence. Second, while companies can feed profits into communities by ways of revenue sharing, employment and service procurement, by necessity the majority of profits must flow back to investors. The result is that even in Quebec, where there is a sophisticated taxation regime, the economic benefits of mining are negligible. It is these two issues, the lack of control and the lack of benefit, which is at the heart of many, if not most, mining conflicts across the globe.

By granting flexibility over who is allowed to participate in decision-making and who profits from mining activities cooperatives can benefit from greater local legitimacy. In Bolivia, workers run the cooperatives, they annually elect an executive council and representatives in regional and national mining organizations. Each miner has significant discretion over how and when they will work. The cooperative model can be easily modified to include community members within its umbrella. The reality is that by giving individuals formal institutional rights, cooperatives offer far more power, and by extension far more legitimacy, over even the most generous of CSR consultation schemes. Second, cooperatives have greater flexibility in how they distribute profits. While mines in Potosí only provide minimal redistribution of revenues, the cooperative model can easily adapt to distribute revenues evenly among members or develop a more sophisticated scheme of distribution. More importantly, regardless of how revenues are distributed, they remain within the community, as there are no foreign investments that need to be recouped. It is for this reason that a number of international development agencies have funded mining cooperatives as vehicle of local development.

Mining cooperatives also offer a number of potential incidental benefits. First, small-scale mining is a critical source of employment in many developing nations, but as it is largely in the informal economy, it is very difficult to regulate. By providing a consolidated institutional structure, cooperatives make the regulation of small-scale mining far more efficient. Second, cooperatives offer an important way of increasing women’s participation in extraction industries and their benefits from it. In Bolivia, Palliris and other women are important actors within cooperatives—though significant gender disparities persist—and in Sierra Leone, women dominate the artisanal gold mining industry.

What are the challenges to the cooperative model?:

Lack of Capital

While cooperatives have flourished in Bolivia and are increasingly being supported as an alternative model of mining development, they are far from perfect and pose substantial challenges. The most significant of these is the lack of capital. Individual miners have no hope of accessing sufficient security for large investment, and even if they did, small-scale mining activities rarely yield enough profits to pay these loans back in the short-term. In Bolivia this lack of capital is the root cause of a number of serious issues. First, cooperatives are unable to participate in secondary industries, such as milling, transportation and refining. As a result miners are limited to profits from selling raw ore and do not benefit from any added value. More seriously, they are left vulnerable to the predatory practices of private companies who can dictate the rents miners will pay for equipment and services. Lastly, miners are often unable to afford the basic tools to perform their work safely and effectively; in Potosí a large number of miners worked with hand drills, and those with powered drills had no water to cut down on the hazardous clouds of dust. The lack of investment also makes environmental protection initiatives difficult to implement, and tailing runoffs and mercury contamination are serious issues in many mining cooperatives.

Other Forms of Social Division

Another serious issue is that the effectiveness of mining cooperatives as an alternative model is highly dependent specifically on how the cooperatives are structured. In Bolivia cooperatives have created their own significant forms of social stratification. First, income is not always redistributed; rather individual members are able to keep whatever profits they generate out of their work. Second, cooperative members frequently hire wage labourers who have no institutional power and do not benefit from the social services provided to members. Third, while women can become members of cooperatives, they are more often relegated to low paying and precarious work with minimal institutional power within the cooperatives themselves.

Regulatory Challenges

**Lastly, while many have written about cooperatives as vehicles for formalizing the artisanal mining sector, the Bolivian example demonstrates that cooperatives alone are no solution. There remain numerous environmental concerns about dumping of tailings into rivers; unsafe employment practices that result in frequent collapses, silicosis or gas poisonings; and the practice of hiring children as young as thirteen to work underground. There are laws on all of these practices but they are rarely enforced even though there is a comprehensive institutional structure surrounding the cooperatives.

Adapting the cooperative model:

Alternative financing models

While these problems are all significant, none of them are insurmountable. The problem with capital financing will either need to be dealt with directly by the state or by social financing initiatives. The Bolivian state has financed cooperatives to take over mid sized operations, whose work is facilitated by the higher levels of cooperative organization. Micro-financing is another possible alternative, however even the most basic of mining equipment can be exceptionally expensive and given lower rates of return any loans can only be paid off over a multi-year period, which poses challenges to the traditional micro-finance model. In Bolivia another novel situation has arisen where junior mining companies have begun joint ventures with cooperatives. In these arrangements the cooperatives perform exploration work and once a viable claim has been found the juniors purchase the site in order to develop it.

Changing the cooperative structure

The issues of exclusivity and inequality are more complex and solutions will be affected by existing community dynamics. However, Nicaraguan coffee cooperatives have implemented community wide decision-making processes with mechanisms for wealth redistribution and environmental management. While there may be challenges in translating this model into the other social contexts, it offers important lessons for crafting more equitable cooperative structures.

Creating national cooperative structures

Improving the effectiveness of regulations will be highly dependent on a number of factors. But states can aid the means of managing potentially thousands of cooperatives with the aid of regional and national cooperative organizations. These structures are already in place in Bolivia, with numerous regional bodies and a singular national federation of cooperatives that lobbies and supports the development of cooperative mines. Goverments will also need to implement effective enforcement mechanisms and development policies to address the poverty that underlies many of the issues in small-scale mining.

Repaying our Debts

The miners I worked with in Bolivia believed that to take minerals from the earth meant incurring a debt with la Pachamama (mother-earth). This debt was unavoidable; it was inherent to the nature of mining. This has always stuck with me. We will never sanitize mining, human conflict and environmental damages may always be unavoidable. However, we are all dependent on the products of mining, and as such we are all morally implicated in the harm it causes. An answer to mining conflicts is needed, and it is needed now. Perhaps mining cooperatives will be part of that answer.

Capture et stockage de charbon : une soi-disant solution

Sara Andrade est une étudiante de deuxième année à la Faculté de Droit de McGill. Elle est éditrice associée de la RDPDD et présidente du Club de Droit de l’Environnement de McGill. L’hiver, elle aime tricoter. 

Centrale électrique de Bełchatów, en Pologne. Photo: gracieuseté de Flickr CC.

Centrale électrique de Bełchatów, en Pologne. Photo: gracieuseté de Flickr CC.

Minimiser le changement climatique en éliminant les émissions de gaz à effet de serre à l’échelle globale d’ici 2100 est encore possible, a affirmé le 2 novembre dernier le Groupe d’experts intergouvernemental sur l’évolution du climat (GIEC). Cette réduction complète n’aurait apparemment qu’un maigre effet sur l’économie mondiale. Réitérant l’importance de l’enjeu climatique alarmant, ce rapport synthétique se veut plus direct et ferme sur la question environnementale : il faudra arrêter l’utilisation des combustibles fossiles d’ici la fin du siècle, à moins que des technologies de captage de CO2 ne soient développées.

Étant donné la situation actuelle en Amérique du Nord, impliquant plusieurs projets d’oléoducs, il n’est guère surprenant que l’industrie pétrolière reçoive le plus d’attention médiatique. Pourtant, la combustion de charbon reste aussi une pratique importante au niveau planétaire, étant la deuxième source d’énergie primaire et garantissant 41% de l’électricité mondiale. Il est surprenant qu’une ressource évocatrice d’une autre époque, de la révolution industrielle du 18e siècle, soit toujours aussi exploitée.

Mine de charbon à ciel ouvert Jalai Nur, au nord-ouest de la Chine. Photo: gracieuseté de Flickr CC.

Mine de charbon à ciel ouvert Jalai Nur, au nord-ouest de la Chine. Photo: gracieuseté de Flickr CC.

Non seulement est-elle proéminente dans les pays émergents tels que la Chine et l’Inde, mais certains états progressistes, tels que l’Allemagne, en sont également dépendants. Il est surtout étonnant de constater l’influence du charbon lorsque son impact environnemental est considéré. En effet, 43% des émissions de dioxyde de carbone provenant de l’utilisation de combustibles fossiles, qui comptent pour 87% des émissions de source humaine, découlent de la combustion du charbon. Cela va sans mentionner les effets des mines de charbon sur la santé; par exemple, en Chine, l’exploitation de cette énergie fossile tue environ 5 000 personnes annuellement et causait 600 000 infections pulmonaires individuelles en 2010.

Mine de charbon North Antelope Rochelle au Wyoming. Photo: gracieuseté de Flickr CC.

Mine de charbon North Antelope Rochelle au Wyoming. Photo: gracieuseté de Flickr CC.

Il est évident que ce combustible fossile est problématique. C’est pour cela que le rapport du GIEC déplore la nécessité de munir toutes les centrales électriques de charbon d’un dispositif de capture et de stockage de CO2 avant la fin du siècle. Cette technique permet essentiellement de capter le CO2, soit avant ou après la combustion, évitant qu’il ne s’échappe dans l’atmosphère, pour ensuite le transporter et le stocker dans le sous-sol terrestre. De même, il n’y aurait aucune émission du gaz à effet de serre. Cependant, plusieurs problèmes technico-économiques sont impliqués dans le processus. Effectivement, à ce jour, le procédé n’a pas été réussi à grande échelle quoique des expérimentations soient en cours dans les pays industrialisés. D’un point de vue économique, le captage de CO2 pourrait entraîner des coûts considérables allant jusqu’à 70% en plus de ceux essentiels pour le fonctionnement d’une centrale électrique, étant donné le besoin d’avoir des infrastructures nécessitant un système d’approvisionnement électrique séparé. De plus, le stockage du gaz consiste une difficulté supplémentaire puisque le CO2 ne peut être emmagasiné que dans des réservoirs aptes à le conserver pendant des centaines d’années à des centaines de mètres sous terre. Tout cela sans oublier que les risques humains et environnementaux associés à l’industrie minière, à l’extraction du charbon, seraient toujours présents. Considérant que les réserves de charbon sont loin d’être épuisées (le pic du charbon n’arriverait que dans 224 ans aux États-Unis), son exploitation est quasi assurée dans le futur.

Bref, quoique le nouveau rapport du GIEC se dise plus net, il ne va pas jusqu’à condamner entièrement les énergies fossiles. En laissant une ouverture, aussi mince qu’elle le soit, les états ne contempleront pas la solution la plus favorable pour un développement durable: le délaissement de l’énergie fossile pour des énergies renouvelables.

Development without dependency: ownership and empowerment in Haiti

Stéphanie Déborah Jules is a second year student at the McGill University’s Faculty of Law and an associate editor for the McGill International Journal of Sustainable Development Law and Policy. She holds a Magna Cum Laude degree in the Criminology Honours program from the University of Ottawa. Born and raised in Haiti, Stéphanie has a particular interest for sustainable development and its capacity to empower communities to create their own wealth by using their local resources.


“One of the final insults experienced by almost any NGO Republic is that its donors decide not only where and how the money will be spent but also when it is no longer needed.” 

The Nation


Organizations across the globe—NGOs, aid agencies, church groups and charities—are increasingly mistaking dependency for “development.” Yet, between the two lies a world. Truly long-term sustainable development is achievable when a community has the opportunity to obtain the organizational skills and financial resources that it needs to direct its own development. Only then, and armed with the necessary tools, can the population begin to develop and achieve the level of strength and independence it both needs and deserves. This is what the landmark definition of sustainable development clearly states: “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Strategy for building independent communities.  Attribution: Roots of Development.

Strategy for building independent communities.
Attribution: Roots of Development.

Development, not charity­

Haiti is often considered the “Republic of NGOs”. Since the earthquake that devastated the island in 2010, more than 9 billion dollars were giving in governmental assistance. According to Bill Clinton, the UN special envoy to Haiti, worldwide Haiti ranks second-highest, after India, for the number of NGOs per capita. Yet, the priorities of the population are not the same as those of NGOs, which are the one that end-up being executed. “NGOs come with something, but not with what the population needs” explains Joseph Philippe, a coordinator of the Municipal Civil Protection Committee of Léogâne which was devastated by the earthquake. 

Haitian Women.  Attribution: Roots of Development.

Haitian Women.
Attribution: Roots of Development.

The problem is, when the international community arrives with foreign resources and foreign systems that are believed to address the needs of a community more resourcefully, these communities quickly embrace the new system in disfavor of their own. However, when the foreign resources diminish or when objectives change, these systems abate too. Then, communities are left worse off then they were before. This shows the importance that aid agencies start with the communities’ objectives in order to build a methodology that empowers the population to achieve their goals.


Development without dependency

Roots of Development—a community investment organization that helps impoverished communities in La Gonave in Haiti—fully embraces the concept of development without dependency.  As a matter of fact, Roots of Development “promotes an alternative approach to rural development by facilitating a process in which [they] bring together diverse representatives from a community, listen to their goals, and build on their inherent strengths to complete community-driven projects that foster greater independence”. In so doing, Roots assists the community of Gran Sous in acquiring the financial resources and organizational abilities essential to manage their own development.

Children and the 1st Community Water System. Attribution: Roots of Development.

Children and the 1st Community Water System. Attribution: Roots of Development.

A true partnership is what Haiti and the other 47 nations classified by the United Nations as least developed countries need in their journey to sustainability. The problem is that if the efforts of NGOs and other investment organizations only help a population meet its immediate needs and do not provide the community with the means to address those needs on their own in the future, they are simply doing relief work or charity. Yet, temporary solutions do not equal sustainability.

Roots of development’s vision is “for a world in which the very communities living in poverty are the ones leading the fight against it; a world in which impoverished communities decide their own future and manage their own development”.  To do so they have to come up with a “Blueprint for building independent communities”:

EMPOWERMENT because a community’s long-term sustainable success depends on their capacity building skills: bookkeeping, marketing, leadership, conflict resolution and strategic planning.

 OWNERSHIP because at its roots sustainability requires that the communities choose, build, manage and maintain their own projects.

INFRASTRUCTURE PROJECTS because to be functional, communities must have systems and services they can rely on.

COMMUNITY BUSINESSES because to be independent, communities need to have their own sources of revenue.

Only when international organisations fully embrace this concept of development without dependency, can they truly call themselves friends of Haiti and other less developed countries.

Attack from Within: Consumer Law’s Role in Fighting Consumerism

Ghaith is in his first year of studies at McGill Law, and enjoys reading, playing piano, and pretending to be good at sports.

I was walking home in the rain on a cloudy Sunday afternoon with my brother Jihad, when my left shoe came apart. Hanging halfway off, the rubber sole would squish, clap and clomp with each wet step against the bottom of my shoe.


Converse shoes.
Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons. Attribution: Mark Kristoffer Absulio

I was incensed. My shoes, not even three weeks old, were already entirely useless.  Now, waddling in the rain, I had to either rush and buy a new pair before stores closed, or go to class on Monday barefoot.  With an hour left before 5:00PM, there was no time to find a cobbler and repair it.  Cursing designed obsolescence and our disposable culture, I bought the cheapest pair of replacement shoes I could find and resolved to get a refund for the company’s terrible handiwork.  The only problem was that I had thrown out the receipt.

Fortunately, I discovered that consumer protection laws stood in my favour. Both the Code civil du Québec [Article 1727 of the Civil Code of Quebec] and Quebec’s Consumer Protection Act [s. 53] had provisions protecting consumers from latent defects in their products.  I learned that even without a receipt or warranty, retailers must repair, exchange, or reimburse consumers for the defective products they sell.  Perhaps, I thought, this could be an answer to the disposable culture and designed obsolescence plaguing today’s consumerism.

The quality deficit in today’s goods is more than an occasional nuisance; it’s a recurring cost for consumers and the environment.  An increasing number of tech gadgets, kitchen appliances, and even motor vehicles are designed to fail.  Without options to repair these products, consumers end up having to discard their broken item into a landfill and simply purchase another.  Companies profit from this cycle of planned obsolescence at the expense of consumers and the planet.

Thanks to consumer protection law, however, in this case the cost would have fallen on the retailer.  Rather than achieve the greater profits it sought by reducing its product’s durability, the shoe company would have been forced to rebate or reimburse me for its poor quality.  Whether intended or not, consumer law manages to create a vulnerability in the policy of planned obsolescence.

Perhaps there is greater room to exploit consumer protection law’s potential.  Designed obsolescence and disposable culture fuel one another.  The former puts repairing defects out of reach of consumers, and the latter turns this into a norm.  Slowing, let alone stopping, this vicious cycle is fraught with challenges.  Manufactured needs and marketing are at the root of disposable culture, but curtailing advertising often conflicts with freedom of speech.  A deeply set “lowest price wins” mentality enables designed obsolescence, but taxing shoddy products is often regressive in harming those who simply can’t afford anything better.  Can greater consumer rights address these twin heads of consumerism?

Disposable culture may be too broad a problem for consumer laws to tackle, but fighting designed obsolescence is definitely within their reach.  As we saw with defective goods (e.g., my broken shoes), consumer protection laws already penalize retailers for trying to take advantage of disposable culture.  Items must last a reasonable period of time before they break, even without a warranty.  Expanding what constitutes a “reasonable period of time” for reporting defects could go a long way in helping consumers challenge a retailer’s corner cutting.  Similarly, expanding consumer law to include smaller, secondary defects (for example, those infamous “cosmetic tears” that appear on running shoes after only a few months’ use) could empower individuals to challenge other manufacturing flaws that they as consumers consider unjust.  After enough consumer challenges, perhaps shoe companies would get tired of giving endless rebates and simply offer to repair the products they sold; or strike an agreements with local cobblers, or hold onto the broken shoes and find another use for them.  Regardless of how they do it, such an expansion of consumer protection laws would make companies accountable for their own planned obsolescence.

On their own, these changes would not impose satisfactory limits on consumerism.  But given the deadlock on this issue so far, they could very well be the only low-hanging fruit in sight.

Black and yellow Nike shoes.  Attribution: Dave Emerson

Black and yellow Nike shoes.
Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons. Attribution: Dave Emerson

Ending North Korea’s Human Rights Abuses

Tyler Meyer is a 2L at the McGill Faculty of Law. He is a Research Fellow with the One Justice Project, an associate editor for the McGill International Journal of Sustainable Development Law and Policy, and is the Newsletter Director for Environmental Law at McGill.

In March, China vehemently rejected a UN report that documented grave human rights violations in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The report, drafted at the request of the UN Special Rapporteur on North Korea, produced unsurprising conclusions: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, its institutions and officials, are committing “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations,” many of which “constitute crimes against humanity.” Despite the criticism by one of the world’s most powerful economies, the veracity of the report’s conclusions is otherwise uncontested. What are contested are the policy initiatives that will end the regime’s human rights violations, as very little has been successful at altering the authoritarian regime’s domestic policies that institutionalize human rights abuses.

Unconventional housing in North Korea. Photo courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons.

Unconventional housing in North Korea. Photo courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons.

Condemnation by the International Community

For years, the international community has repeatedly condemned North Korea’s systematic and widespread human rights abuses and crimes against humanity. However, the North Korean government has “consistently and categorically rejected the resolutions adopted by the former Commission on Human Rights, the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly on the situation of human rights,” demonstrating that international political pressure alone is unlikely to yield significant changes to North Korea’s domestic politics.

Economic Sanctions

Economic sanctions have also had little impact on North Korea’s domestic policies. For example, the increased sanctions imposed in response to North Korea’s nuclear tests in 2009 simply pushed the country away from the global community and its pressure for enhanced human rights, and into closer economic relations with China and other trading partners that are unwilling to pressure North Korea. This is problematic because North Korea’s reorganized external economic relations allow it to insulate itself from economic sanctions from the West, especially since North Korea’s policies have had little impact on trade relations with its two closest partners, China and South Korea.

1000 won note. Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.

1000 won note. Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.

Humanitarian Aid

Many argue that politics should be separated from humanitarian aid such that aid should not be contingent upon policy reform. However, this may be an untenable position. North Korea is unable to feed its population and relies heavily on commercially imported food. Despite famines and continued food shortages, the government has used humanitarian aid to substitute, rather than supplement, commercially imported food. The resulting savings are then reallocated to its military and other government priorities. Therefore, although some humanitarian aid may reach the intended targets, knowing that some aid is indirectly used to support the North Korean regime and its military goals makes it difficult for donor states and organizations’ aid to be completely divorced from political pressure and negotiations for reform.

Direction Forward

Without the global community creating a united front that includes China and South Korea, it is unlikely that the world will be capable of ending North Korea’s human rights abuses and security threats in the near future. However, there are many mechanisms that the global community can pursue that may produce long-term change. First, the global community must continue to push China to implement economic sanctions on North Korea. Given that China represents over one-third of North Korea’s trade and is the country’s most generous aid donor, significant sanctions by China “would bring the country to its knees.” This path will become more viable as North Korea’s policies exert greater destabilizing effects on the region and the net benefits of China-North Korea trade relations decrease for China.

Air Koryo North Korean Airlines, Photo Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.

Air Koryo North Korean Airlines, Photo Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.

Second, instead of simply imposing trade sanctions on North Korea, the global community can implement economic sanctions against North Korea’s international financial intermediaries, which has had some success in the past. This will become increasingly difficult if this simply pushes North Korea into closer relations with China and other states unwilling to pressure it to reform its domestic policies.

Third, the global community should seek to enhance its relations with North Korea, given that as the country’s international ties increase, so does its need to respond to international pressure to end human rights abuses. Foreign trade, investment, and aid should be increased, as this will not only lead to North Korea’s deeper engagement with the world community, but it will also enhance the likelihood of long-term changes to domestic policies. Making aid strictly contingent upon reforms has led to drastic repercussions for North Koreans, as it has led to catastrophic declines in food aid. Donor states and organizations should continue and even enhance aid, but seek to negotiate when supplying North Korea with aid. Donor organizations that have remained in the country claim that they have done so because their presence and continued negotiations have produced visible, lasting changes.

International relations with North Korea remain a sensitive and hotly debated topic. Moving forward, the international community will have to work together to compel the North Korean regime to alter its domestic policies. It will have to continue to walk the fine line between the possibility of pushing the North Korean regime farther away from global humanitarian norms, and the need for careful pressure to produce meaningful change and the possibility of a more prosperous future for millions of North Koreans.

Le droit à l’oubli n’existe plus

Angèle Périllate-Amédée est une éditrice associée avec le JSDLP et une étudiante de troisième année à la Faculté de droit de McGill. Elle complète présentement une mineure en économie à McGill et a un DEC (Sainte Foy) en Langues et cultures. Elle est principalement intéressée par les questions de développement durable en économie et par la propriété intellectuelle. Originaire des Alpes françaises, elle aime les sports d’hiver.

L’auteure de cet article de blog et l’éditrice du site voudraient remercier Michaël Lessard, éditeur français du RDPDD, pour ses contributions lors de la rédaction. 

Activite de web. Photo gracieusete de saintbob, Flickr CC.

Activité de web. Photo: gracieuseté de saintbob, Flickr CC.

Lors de l’évènement « South by Southwest » (SXSW), Eric Schmidt, PDG de Google, a avancé l’idée que « le droit à l’oubli “n’existe plus” ». Il faisait référence au fait que désormais, tout un chacun peut rendre disponible en ligne des informations sur sa vie et sur celle des autres, perdant par le fait même le contrôle de ce qu’il en adviendra. Une fois que l’information est en ligne, on ne peut en maitriser complètement l’accès, ce qu’il en sera fait, ni les conséquences que cela aura dans la vie réelle. Cette facilité qu’a l’information à voyager a changé notre rôle de citoyens en quelques années. Cette facilité inquiète aussi, notamment en ce qui concerne la vie privée, mais il s’avère que nous avons accès aux outils nécessaires pour la protéger. Si le droit à l’oubli n’existe plus, le respect de la vie privée passe par la responsabilisation des internautes.

Quelles informations et pourquoi?

La capacité que nous donne le Web de rendre l’information publique joue un rôle crucial dans la vie citoyenne du début du XXIème siècle. Cela a pu être constaté lors de soulèvements citoyens et de révolutions, par exemple dans le monde Arabe, au Vénézuela et en Ukraine tout récemment, où les réseaux sociaux ont permis de faire circuler nouvelles et vidéos depuis le terrain. La connexion à distance permet aussi à des mouvements citoyens de rejoindre un plus grand public au moyen, par exemple, des pétitions en ligne de change.org, Avaaz ou All Out. Un autre exemple récent de cette utilisation citoyenne du Web est la publication d’images satellites après la disparition d’un avion entre la Malaisie et la Chine. La compagnie à qui appartiennent ces images a alors demandé à ses 25 000 internautes bénévoles d’aider à repérer d’éventuels traces de l’avion sur des milliers de kilomètres carrés d’images. La disparition du droit à l’oubli, c’est aussi l’évaporation du droit d’ignorer ce qu’il se passe dans le reste du monde.

Les supporteurs de WikiLeaks. Photo gracieusete de utu(slowly), Flickr CC.

Les supporteurs de WikiLeaks. Photo: gracieuseté de utu(slowly), Flickr CC.

Ce n’est cependant pas là que les scandales éclatent quant à la protection de l’information, mais plutôt en ce qui concerne les informations privées. Il semblerait que la distinction entre notre vie privée et notre statut de citoyen soit de moins en moins claire. Nous en sommes en partie responsables : les réseaux sociaux sont un lieu de partage entre amis, mais on y trouve notre curriculum vitae, on peut s’y réunir pour des causes politiques. Ce mélange de genres explique le malaise créé par les révélations d’Edward Snowden en juin dernier: la collecte de données de serveurs de messagerie par la National Security Agency était justifiée par la nécessité de protéger la population américaine, mais cette surveillance des actions dites citoyennes d’une partie de la population a impliqué la collaboration de compagnies informatiques (Google, Yahoo, Facebook) détenant aussi des informations d’ordre strictement privé.

Quelles alternatives au système actuel?

Ce 12 mars, Sir Tom Berners-Lee, l’inventeur du « World Wide Web », a soutenu le projet de créer une charte internationale de l’Internet, « an online Magna Carta ». Se présentant comme une liste de principes, qui pourraient être adaptés à des milieux sociaux-culturels différents, cette charte défendrait le droit à la vie privée, à la liberté d’expression et à l’anonymat responsable. Elle devrait aussi traiter des questions, entre autres éthiques, sur la propriété intellectuelle.

L'installation "Key Note". Photo gracieusete de William Neuheisel, Flickr CC.

L’installation “Key Note”. Photo: gracieuseté de William Neuheisel, Flickr CC.

Pour Edward Snowden, la responsabilité de protéger ses données revient aussi à celui qui les détient. Partant du principe que « Il faut rendre la surveillance de masse plus chère et donc moins pratique pour la NSA », il encourage les gens à chiffrer leurs données, c’est-à-dire à en changer la cryptographie. Seul le détenteur du fichier en connaît la clé de chiffrement, une sorte de mot de passe. Il existe pour cela des logiciels tels que TrueCrypt et Cloudfogger qui peuvent chiffrer des données automatiquement avant qu’elles ne soient mises en ligne. Il est aussi possible de chiffrer vos courriels, statuts et photos en ligne. BlockPRISM, par exemple, est une extension disponible sur Google Chrome qui permet de chiffrer vos données sur Facebook. Selon Snowden, « Les gens, qu’ils soient journalistes ou citoyens, doivent avoir accès à cette technologie. Ce n’est pas une technologie qui doit faire peur, ce n’est pas un art obscur. On doit l’étudier […]. Le chiffrement de données fonctionne. »

Chacun aurait alors le pouvoir de contrôler le niveau de publicité donné aux informations qu’il ou elle met en ligne, de distinguer le privé du citoyen s’il le souhaite.



International Institutions Matter: the UN Commission on the Status of Women

Jess De Santi is a first year law student at McGill University and an associate editor with the journal. She holds a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Political Science from McGill University, with a minor in World Religions.

Since most United Nations (“UN”) bodies cannot enforce state action, some critics question their relevance and utility (interested readers can find former American Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s response to some UN criticisms here). But these criticisms misunderstand both the nature of the UN and its role as an international meeting-place for government and non-government representatives alike. These forums provide a setting in which a diverse set of state representatives can meet and discuss important issues related to achieving peace and development at the international level in a neutral setting. At the same time, these settings allow for the creation of policy measures that national governments can enact to further these goals.

Opening of the CSW's 57th session.  Photo courtesy of UN Women, Flickr CC.

Opening of the CSW’s 57th session. Photo courtesy of UN Women, Flickr CC.

The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (“CSW”), the major policy-making international body promoting gender equality and empowerment of women, is an example of such an institution. Each March, the CSW holds its annual session to review the progress made globally on gender equality, and proposes policies for countries to adopt domestically in furtherance of these goals. Thus, it is a functional commission and reports to the UN Economic and Social Council (“ECOSOC”), which is responsible for overseeing the implementation of strategies to achieve internationally agreed upon development goals. This body is responsible for about 70% of the UN’s human and financial resources. Thus, rather than putting forward statements of values, the ECOSOC and its subsidiary bodies, like the CSW, attempt to formulate concrete proposals for states to implement.

Beyond the meetings and closed-door negotiations of national representatives, hundreds of representatives from non-governmental organisations (“NGOs”) meet in dozens of side events during which representatives present research, progress reports on programs and initiatives on the ground, and discuss the multitude of ways in which the issues women and girls face are being addressed (see here for a sample list of events from the 2013 session). While these events are usually sponsored by particular governments or international organisations, they nonetheless provide a necessary space for a wide variety of NGOs to share knowledge and to network. This space thus provides opportunities for the people outside of governments, who are often involved in the implementation of international goals and projects, to share ideas, best practices, and feedback on the work and research they do.

This year, the CSW’s main theme will be “Challenges and achievements in the implementation of Millennium Development Goals for women and girls.” These Goals arise from the UN Millennium Declaration of 2000 and aim drastically to reduce poverty by 2015 by concentrating international efforts into eight specific areas, all of which impact the lives of women and girls. Two of these Goals are specifically about women: Goal Three, to promote gender equality and empower women, and Goal Five, to improve maternal health.

Side event at CSW57. Photo courtesy of UN Women, Flickr CC.

Side event at CSW57. Photo courtesy of UN Women, Flickr CC.

The CSW has recently released the draft conclusions, which will be debated, improved, and negotiated before being passed. While the draft mentions the progress made in certain respects, notably access to primary education, it also lists the numerous challenges faced in improving women’s lives. Clause 9 of the draft notes that progress for women on all Millennium Development Goals (“MDGs”) is heavily influenced by factors beyond gender, noting that women living in situations of conflict are least likely to see progress made on the MDGs. Beyond reviewing the progress made, and noting the many challenges governments and NGOs face in accomplishing the MDGs, the draft puts forward several recommendations for surmounting the challenges to achieving the MDGs.

International institutions matter. United Nations bodies such as the CSW continue to play an important role, not only as forums of discussion and debate about pressing global issues at the international level, but as agencies that can evaluate progress and formulate more concrete policy recommendations in an attempt to achieve lasting progress towards international development goals.

After Mandela: South Africa’s Horizons Cloudy at the Loss of Its Champion

Charlotte Harman is an associate editor with the JSDLP. She is in her first year at the McGill Faculty of Law, and holds a BA (Hons) from Queen’s University, where she majored in Global Development Studies and minored in Drama and Theatre.

On Thursday, December 5, 2013, South Africa’s legendary figurehead Nelson Mandela died at the age of 95. World-renowned for his lifelong commitment to peace, equality, and justice, Mandela’s legacy is heralded across the globe. Best known for having carried the African National Congress (“ANC”) to its revolutionary victory over the apartheid government in the 1994 election as South Africa’s first black president, he was also a dedicated legal academic and one of the most committed defenders of the global fight against HIV/AIDS. He spent his later years promoting human rights and democracy through the Nelson Mandela foundation. The flurry of media coverage following his death showed the many titles conferred on him, from “Madiba,” the nickname given out of respect for his Xhosa tribe, to both the “greatest son” and father (“Tata”) of the nation.

Mandela promoted equality before the law and in society through the Freedom Charter, a manifesto that today remains a proclamation of the goals of the ANC. Photo Courtesy of Domenico, Flickr CC.

Mandela promoted equality before the law and in society through the Freedom Charter, a manifesto that today remains a proclamation of the goals of the ANC. Photo Courtesy of Domenico, Flickr CC.

Beyond his role as a political revolutionary, Mandela made countless contributions to the transformation of law and policy in South Africa. He studied law at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where he began his involvement in the racial equality movement, forging cooperative relationships between black and white resistance groups and leading demonstrations. Mandela joined the ANC in 1944, initiating his involvement in politics shortly before the dawn of the apartheid regime and the election of the minority Afrikaner-dominated National Party. Along with fellow-ANC member Oliver Tambo, Mandela opened South Africa’s first black law firm in 1952, offering pro bono and low-cost legal counsel to individuals struggling against apartheid legislation. He was a frontrunner in the ANC’s 1952 Campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws, promoting equality before the law and in society through the Freedom Charter, a manifesto that today remains a proclamation of the goals of the ANC. During his presidency, he was deeply devoted to the democratic process, emphasizing the maintenance of an independent judiciary and launching anti-corruption units in several government sectors.

Though Mandela’s death concluded a long life and a slow degradation in health, it was nonetheless a great loss to his country. A vast range of speculations about the future of South Africa has erupted in the wake of his passing, which comes during the tide of an upcoming election and a restless social and political climate. The 2014 election will mark twenty years since Mandela’s great victory as the front man of the ANC. Sadly, those years since Mandela passed on leadership to his successor, Thabo Mbeki, have shown a slow departure from the incredible changes Mandela’s term brought to the nation.

The present socio-economic conditions of the State are dire. Conditions of abject poverty and class stagnation extend nation-wide, with access to basic services frustrated by inconsequential growth. HIV rates remain among the highest in the world, and the epidemic of sexual violence continues to devastate. Not surprisingly, the ANC has faced mounting public disillusionment with their strategy, and this coupled with a birth of corruption and elitism that has fundamentally shaken the party’s legitimacy.

Mandela’s death serves as a reminder of many things: of the brutal struggle against the apartheid regime, the glorious day of its abolishment, the hope and spirit of a nation born anew, and of the timeless words and optimism of one of the greatest leaders of our time. Photo courtesy of Jornal Brasil em Forhas, Flickr CC.

Mandela’s death serves as a reminder of many things: of the brutal struggle against the apartheid regime, the glorious day of its abolishment, the hope and spirit of a nation born anew, and of the timeless words and optimism of one of the greatest leaders of our time. Photo courtesy of Jornal Brasil em Forhas, Flickr CC.

Nevertheless, the ANC remains in power, and to many, appears discouragingly unshakeable. According to a preliminary survey, almost one in four South Africans does not plan to vote in the coming election, the majority professing that that “nothing will change.” Indeed, the ANC maintains a cohort blinded by loyalty carried from the foregone liberation era. Posters of Mandela’s familiar smile now inundate the townships of Cape Town, promising “a better life for all.” Opposition to the party’s two-decade rule is now shrouded in race politics that prevent voters from backing other contenders. The Democratic Alliance struggles to shed its image as a party of mainly white middle-class interests, and the Economic Freedom Fighters, lead by Julius Malema (known for his expulsion from the ANC and promotion of hate speech) continue to prey on animosities between races and classes to gain popularity. Still, the strength of free speech institutions and the enduring voice of resistance suggest the democratic climate is more stable and alive in South Africa than it is often given credit for.

Mandela’s death serves as a reminder of many things: of the brutal struggle against the apartheid regime, the glorious day of its abolishment, the hope and spirit of a nation born anew, and of the timeless words and optimism of one of the greatest leaders of our time. It is also a reminder of the failure of the ANC to carry the gauntlet of freedom and democratic change onwards into the modern post-apartheid state. For South Africa, political freedom has not translated to economic freedom, nor has it fostered a nation grounded in equality, social justice, and peace. Nonetheless, Mandela’s death might be the unifying force this country needs to spark a new movement towards this dream. In his own words, “we must use time wisely and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”

Somewhere Out There: Sustainable Development and Direct Experiences

Patrick Shannon is a third year law student at McGill University, and the layout editor for the JSDLP.

Our Editor in Chief, Jessica Magonet, started off Saturday’s Arctic Law Colloquium with a story from her trip to the Arctic through the Students on Ice Program. For her, the experience was a jarring confrontation between the vast, empty frontier most people think of when they imagine the arctic, and the complex and beautiful region that actually exists. This psychological disconnect is at the heart of many crises in sustainable development.

Adults should be encouraged to confront the natural world and the impact of human behaviour on it. The Columbia Icefields, seen from Wilcox Pass, Alberta, original photo by Patrick Shannon

Adults should be encouraged to confront the natural world and the impact of human behaviour on it. The Columbia Icefields, seen from Wilcox Pass, Alberta, original photo by Patrick Shannon

In “The Natural Contract,” Michel Serres offers a distinctly psychological portrait of the climate crisis, describing with a certain acerbic resignation our “individual cultures [...] living only indoors [...] piled up in cities [...] indifferent to the climate, except during vacations when we rediscover the world in an arcadian and clumsy way, naively polluting what we do not know, which rarely hurts us and never worries us” (at p. 3).

These are difficult words to swallow, but they are perhaps a necessary slap in the face to those of us who continue to struggle against Canada’s transformation into a petrostate. If we continue to ignore the psychosocial disconnect between our 21st century culture and the world groaning beneath the weight of our civilizations, we are certain to fail in any attempt at selling the promise of sustainable development. This is particularly important in a psychological milieu so entirely dominated by western consumerism. The Canadian consumer is carefully guarded from the long-term impacts of her purchases. Brand profiles are constructed to exclude anything that might sour the idealized lifestyles these products promise to buyers.The realities of the world have not changed since the advent of the television advertisement and marketing firm. Human beings are still dependent on this planet for their survival. What has changed is that, for the first time in centuries, the vast majority of our species are entirely unaware of even the most basic impacts their everyday choices will have on the earth. This knowledge has been excised from our collective consciousness to the extent that even something as simple as a meal purchased from the local supermarket has become a mystery.

A vast empty frontier? An inlet off the Davis Straight, near Auyuittuq National Park, Nunavut, August 2010. Original photo by Jessica Magonet.

A vast empty frontier? An inlet off the Davis Straight, near Auyuittuq National Park, Nunavut, August 2010. Original photo by Jessica Magonet.

The eco-feminism that emerged during the 1980s acknowledged the need to examine the importance of our psychological standpoint. In the words of Greta Gaard, foundational texts like Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring sought to bring light to “the linked oppressions of gender, ecology, race, species, and nation” (at p. 28).

This vacuum of human contact with the natural world is a roadblock on the path to convincing Canadians that our relationship with the environment is one that needs repairing. For students, a solution could involve the integration of experiential learning into their curriculum. Adults should be encouraged to confront the natural world and the impact of human behaviour on it. In the realm of international policy, the inclusion of sub-national and experiential expertise into the deliberations of governing bodies like the Arctic Council is a necessary step towards acknowledging the importance of a human perspective.

Michael Bayers, challenging people to go out and see for themselves the beauty of the arctic, to really get to know the people who call it home at the JSDLP Arctic Law Colloquium on offshore resources and international governance, 25 January 2014. Photo courtesy of Patrick Shannon.

Michael Byers, challenging people to go out and see for themselves the beauty of the arctic, to really get to know the people who call it home at the JSDLP Arctic Law Colloquium on offshore resources and international governance, 25 January 2014. Photo courtesy of Patrick Shannon.

For my part, I am committed to encouraging the JSDLP’s mission to include a plurality of voices and perspectives. Although the journal has strong editorial standards, it has always recognized that firsthand experience and a diversity of content is just as important as Academic rigour. In the latest edition of our journal, The Honourable Eva Aariak, Former Premier of Nunavut, provides her unique insight into the impact of the melting arctic on Nunavut hunters. I would invite anyone with experience to share to submit an article to our team. Michael Byers, in his talk during last week’s colloquium, provided a powerful piece of advice. He encouraged everyone to go out and see for herself the beauty of the arctic, to really get to know the people who call it home. Once the gap between information and experience has been bridged, the science and policy of sustainable development will never read the same way again.


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