Shape Your Future with Elise Groulx – Human Rights Lawyer

Slavery and global commercial routes are becoming again pressing issues. Human rights are still not respected in many countries around the world. So in this fast pacing environment we wanted to catchup with human rights lawyer Elise Groulx. We checked with her on how things are progressing and she explained to us why people need an attorney when it comes to human rights.

The first part of your career was devoted to being a criminal defense attorney. Following it, you pivoted to international criminal law and then more broadly human rights law. What led you to transition into this field? What are the primary differences between these types of law practice?

EG: I started in criminal law as a public defender where my job and mission were to give a voice to marginalized and vulnerable people facing the courts, police, and state agencies. This is how I learned to be a lawyer, standing up for an accused person as well as a cause. I then transitioned to international criminal law conducting advocacy at a policy level like treaty negotiations at the UN and establishing international legal frameworks. I also helped to create and work with two NGOs alongside other legal professionals. We fight for justice such as the right to a fair trial for workers or communities facing powerful state institutions or business enterprises. I advocated for the right to speak out, to complain, and to be heard.  That is how I entered the field of international human rights. In the years since, I have widened my focus to deal with economic and business issues including modern slavery and labor conditions.

You have been very involved in ensuring that corporations respect human rights. In your opinion, what are the biggest human rights risks entities face today? How do these challenges changes depending on the country the corporation is located in?

EG: First, it is important to note that the risks vary greatly by sector and region. Risks to global human rights have a wide range across many economic sectors and issues like climate change, labor rights, and social media.

For example, communities in the global south often oppose mining projects. In many cases they have the right to be consulted and to give their consent, meaning they can also say no to the project. In a different example, citizens in the EU now have the recognized right to voice their concerns about social media per the right to privacy. Thus, their data cannot be shared without their consent. Lastly, let us look at a solar farm being constructed that would disrupt cattle grazing by nomadic herdsmen and threaten their traditional livelihoods.

All these examples are quite different but share common themes in human rights law.

Most are familiar with the historical form of chattel slavery but you have asserted that today’s “modern slavery” is hidden from everybody. How would you describe “modern slavery”? What do you think is the future of these inhumane and unjust practices?

EG: Officially most governments criminalize slavery and trafficking and business enterprises declare “zero tolerance” for it. However, there is a growing recognition that “modern slavery” occurs out of our sight, hidden in complex global supply chains. This is a thriving large-scale phenomenon affecting workers and farmers in dozens of major trading nations.

It is too much to ask a single corporation or supplier to attack this problem. Entire sectors and supply chains have to work together and adopt stringent policies to stop it. We also need a very ambitious will to develop creative collaboration among states, politicians, police, businesses, laborers, NGOs, and communities. If we cannot work together, we are conceding directly or indirectly that modern slavery as a “hidden industry” will continue to thrive, especially with mass migration. Widespread admission of this phenomenon is the first step, but firm action is needed a to slow it down and eradicate it completely.

Green energy is becoming increasingly valued by corporations. Based on your work with energy corporations, what do you think about their work and implantation of green energy? Do you think human rights and green energies are correlated?

EG: Climate change is usually framed in the language of science, technology, and economics. It can also be framed using the language and principles of “human rights” if we envisage the
projected damage to human property, farmland, and water resources.

Green energy is certainly one key “solution” to climate change, thus globally it also represents a major human rights initiative, not just a technological one. However, green energy presents major human rights challenges as there would be so-called “losers” in the transition to an economy based on green energy.

We need to respect and listen to citizens’ objections and demands for remediation. We need to ensure a fair transition to green energy. It will abolish hundreds of thousands of jobs and that is also a huge human rights challenge that needs to be addressed urgently. Our institutions need to adapt quickly. The big question is: “Can we meet this challenge”?

The answer is: “We have no choice!”

For more information on human rights, check the website.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of
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