Environmental and human rights law intersect in student\’s internship


Since her undergraduate days at the University of California, Berkeley, protecting the environment has become a way of life for second-year Penn State Law student Rachel Rivers — a passion that she has carried over into her legal studies. At her summer internship with the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW), Rivers is using her legal education to protect the environment while advancing human rights.

“Attending Cal exposed me to a mindset in which people incorporate reducing their carbon footprint into their daily lives. It was new to me,” said Rivers. “I was exposed to a number of environmental organizations and individuals taking an interest in environmental issues. I took this experience with me as I studied and worked.”

Comprised of more than 300 public interest advocates from 70 countries, ELAW’s global network of human rights and environmental advocates use law and science to advance environmental justice.

“As I take on more projects at ELAW, I am finding that international environmental law is often a nexus between human rights issues and the environment. In the United States, we are concerned with a variety of environmental issues such as genetically modified organisms and organic labeling, and timber companies versus endangered species, but the human aspect is often kept separate,” said Rivers. “In many developing countries the issues are more directly related to the well being of the local populations: oil in Ecuador and the people that are displaced, taking of private property through eminent domain in Thailand without just compensation, and expansion of wildlife parks in Swaziland forcing native populations to the brink of starvation. All of this, often with a complete lack of due process.”

Geography no hurdle

Not allowing geography to limit her search for summer employment in the field of environmental law, Rivers packed her bags and headed to Eugene, Ore. for the summer.

“Oftentimes, I think students stick to jobs in their home area, restricting themselves to any work they can find that will allow them to work where they want, but not at a job they want. I understand the desire to do this, and I faced the same dilemma, but I think it is very important to gain knowledge and exposure to an area of law prior to committing a career path,” Rivers said. “So while it wasn\’t ideal to move to a new place, the knowledge and experience in environmental law has been invaluable and will be more beneficial to me in my future endeavors than returning home.”

Like her travel from State College to the West Coast, her research at ELAW has covered quite a bit of ground, including projects on the requirements of Environmental Impact Assessments, industry self-regulation, access to information, genetically engineered species, deep seabed mining and the international Convention on the Law of the Sea.

“Much of the work I do centers around researching U.S. law, and sometimes laws of commonwealth countries, and applying it to legal questions faced by our partners. I then summarize U.S. law and the law of other countries, as it would apply to the issues faced by our partners throughout the world. If an attorney can support their legal argument by analogizing the question to one addressed by U.S. courts and can inform the judiciary of how the matter would be resolved elsewhere, this can strengthen the attorney’s position and provide support for a finding in their favor. “

Her biggest challenges have been researching international case law and adhering to short turnaround time on projects. “Often our partners need answers in a very short period of time, and I am often looking at international case law, which I was not used to,” she said. Another challenge Rivers noted is writing a memo for someone whose first language is not English.

“I really enjoy learning about a number of environmental issues I was not previously aware of, and it\’s fulfilling to know that my legal education can assist others who don\’t necessarily have access to the educational resources I\’ve been provided with,” Rivers said.