‘Solutions are everywhere’: Schulich School prof champions environment and social justice through law

- April 12, 2021

Sara Seck is an associate professor of law and the associate dean of research in Dal’s Schulich School of Law. (Provided image)
Sara Seck is an associate professor of law and the associate dean of research in Dal’s Schulich School of Law. (Provided image)

A long-standing interest in global justice and sustainability is what led Sara Seck to a career in law.

“The world faces tremendous environmental challenges and those most vulnerable — often because their human rights are violated whether due to race, poverty, gender, or age, for example — have often contributed the least to the problems yet suffer the most,” says Dr. Seck, who is an associate professor of law and the associate dean of research in Dal’s Schulich School of Law.

Born and raised in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Dr. Seck studied music at Memorial University. She then moved to Ontario to do a Master’s degree in chamber music performance and freelanced for six years before making the decision to transition into law. She completed an LLB at the University of Toronto, articled at a corporate firm on Bay Street, started a PhD at Osgoode Hall Law School (York University), and, finally, took on a tenure-track position at Western Law in July 2007.


It was in 2017 that Dr. Seck came to Dal. She cites the Marine & Environmental Law Institute (MELAW) and the Schulich School's reputation as a leader in social-justice issues as huge draws.

“MELAW has a long history as a leading institution globally for the study and teaching of international and domestic law in relation to environmental and sustainability, including intersections with oceans and climate governance and justice,” says Dr. Seck. “The combined expertise in environment and sustainability, plus human rights, at MELAW/Schulich School of Law is tremendously impressive, and I was excited to have the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues here.

“The calibre of the students and their dedication to using law to find environmental and social justice solutions in equally inspiring,” continues Dr. Seck. “I was also pretty excited to learn of the alignment of research at Dalhousie with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.”

Finding solutions

Dr. Seck is particularly interested in the relationship between international human rights law, environment, and business law, with a focus on the rights of local and Indigenous communities and global south perspectives on sustainable development.

Most recently, she is exploring how the insights learned in her previous work could apply in the sustainable ocean context, including at the ocean/climate nexus. She believes that adopting a human rights-based approach to questions of sustainable ocean governance in a time of climate and ecological crisis more generally requires explicitly considering the rights of children and youth, women and persons of diverse genders, and local and Indigenous communities, as well as the responsibilities of duty bearers including states, businesses, and even universities.  
“Solutions are everywhere if we think creatively and collaborate outside the box, including by focusing on the responsibilities of businesses which go beyond compliance with the ‘hard law’,” says Dr. Seck.

A passion for law and governance

For Dr. Seck, there have been many highlights throughout her career, but one that sticks out is the work she has been doing with the UN Environment Programme’s Environmental Rights Initiative.

This initiative brings environmental protection nearer to the people by assisting state and non-state actors to Promote, Protect and Respect Environmental Rights. It represents the next phase of UN Environment’s work on human rights and the environment and builds on the outcomes of its past projects as well as key UN Environment Assembly and Human Rights Council resolutions.

“Specific projects on climate change and plastic pollution are starting up now and involve consulting with partner organizations including UNEP Asia; Coordinating Body on the Seas of East Asia (COBSEA); the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD); the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC); the United Nations Development Program (UNDP); and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), to name a few,” says Dr. Seck.

And she is excited to announce the publication of a co-edited Cambridge Handbook on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Development, with co-authors Sumudu Atapattu (University of Wisconsin) and Carmen Gonzalez (Loyola University School of Law) just this month. It features contributors from around the world, who consider the potential of human rights approaches and the social pillar of sustainable development to address environmental justice challenges. Details about the book can be found here and the first chapter can be found here.

Dr. Seck has also had her contributions recognized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s academy of environmental law and received a legal specialist award from the Centre for International Sustainable Development Law (CISDL) in 2019. She is also currently the Director for the North American branch of the Global Network for Human Rights and the Environment (GNHRE).

“I love what I do, and I am privileged to work not only with inspiring colleagues, students and support staff at Dalhousie, but with so many people all over the world who are equally dedicated to reimagining law and governance — and applying it — to overcome current challenges and realize justice for present and future generations.”


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