Niranjali Amerasinghe is Director of the Climate & Energy Program at The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), a legal advocacy NGO. She participated as a panelist for the March 2, 2015 Conversation in Human Rights event on Climate Change, Human Rights, and Environmental Justice. DHRC at KIE Project Director Suzanne Katzenstein conducted this interview electronically.
Suzanne Katzenstein: Where did you grow up, and what were your early years like?
Niranjali Amerasinghe: I grew up in Kandy, Sri Lanka. From my very early years I had a passion for music and anything that my older brother was interested in. Being raised by zoologist parents, I developed a strong connection with the outdoors and spent hours “investigating” my environment. Our parents encouraged us to study hard and play hard, which meant that I did as many extracurricular activities as I could manage in a given term (sports, debating, model UN, music etc.). Life was busy. We were constantly striving to be better and to do more than our parents. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that a civil war was raging in the country at the time. It was just a part of daily life; we were used to it. I have lived outside of Sri Lanka for many years now, but if you ask me where my home is, it is there, the small, beautiful, war-torn country that I grew up in.
SK: How did you become interested in climate change and human rights, and more specifically the legal angle? Did you work on other issues before focusing on this issue?
NA: I studied law because I was interested in how international law and political pressure impact domestic issues. My initial interest arose from the war at home and international efforts to resolve the conflict. Through the course of studying international law, however, that interest quickly changed to how we can use international law to protect the environment thanks to World Trade Organization case, Brazil Tyres. I realized that even my early interest in conflict resolution stemmed from a desire to help protect people’s rights, and people cannot survive without their environment. Working on environmental issues, particularly one as cross-cutting as climate change, was a way to get at human rights issues. It also makes you question the fundamentals of our economic systems and development models, and forces you to think about how to make the world better. And it was at CIEL that all those pieces came together for me.
SK: What does your work entail?
NA: Working at a legal advocacy NGO, a lot of the work we do is to push for changes in international policy. There is a fair amount of legal and textual analysis that I do, but it is in the context of a campaign to improve rights protections in international climate policy. So, there is also an important role for coordinating positions among NGOs, dialogue with negotiators, and building capacity of colleagues with on-the-ground experience to engage in international processes. We also help partners with cases where an international legal angle can add pressure to a domestic campaign (for instance, if there is public international financing involved, we can help prepare a complaint to the relevant institution’s accountability mechanism).
SK: What are the most rewarding and challenging parts of your work?
NA: The most challenging part is that you don’t often succeed. Even though decision-makers may acknowledge that what you are saying is right, they will argue that it does not reflect political reality. The sheer frustration of being told that economic and political models that we ourselves have created are the reason we can’t make progressive changes can be overwhelming. But it does make the occasional successes that much more rewarding.
What I find most rewarding is working with committed people toward a cause that you know is right.
SK: What advice do you have for students who are interested in the intersection of the environment and human rights?
NA: First, it is great that you are interested. We need more students who care about these issues and want to make a career out of protecting the environment and the people who depend on it. Be ready to face disappointment. More often than not, you will experience setbacks, but you have to push through in the knowledge that you are advocating for something worthwhile. Try out different kinds of activities in the space. There is so much to be done in the field and you should figure out whether you prefer the international policy aspects, domestic and regional work, or working more closely with communities – if you are going to dedicate your life to a cause, you should be sure where you want to be working. Network – that’s how you will get connected, and it’s how you will find funding, which is crucial and not easy to get. But most importantly, be true to yourself.