Sumudu Atapattu

Sumudu Atapattu received a Master’s in Public International Law and Ph.D. in International Environmental Law from Cambridge University. She serves as Director of the Human Rights Program and as an affiliate of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, the Center for South Asia, and the 4W Women and Wellbeing Initiative. At the UW Law School, she is the Director of Research Centers as well as a Lecturer. She is also an Attorney-at-Law of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka. Her most-recent book is Human Rights Approaches to Climate Change: Challenges and Opportunities.

An interview with Sumudu

What are your current research interests?  What sparked your interest in this field? 

I look at the link between human rights and environmental protection and especially the link between climate change and human rights. I also study climate migration, small-island states and environmental-justice issues associated with climate change, climate displacement and environmental issues in general. I am also interested in sustainability, North-South divisions relating to environmental degradation and the role of international law in protecting the global environment.

I still remember how I got interested in the link between environmental issues and human rights. I was working for an environmental NGO in Sri Lanka, soon after finishing my LLM.  “Environmental Law” was new to Sri Lanka and I was learning a lot and thoroughly enjoying the challenge of being a pioneer in the field. One day, the senior lawyers working at the NGO announced that “Today we had a great victory. We “evicted squatters” from a national park.” I was a little taken aback. Although I knew that these people were in the national park illegally, I didn’t expect that kind of language from the lawyers or their jubilation. I asked, “So, what will happen to those people?” They looked at me as if I was crazy and I realized that they hadn’t thought about it or frankly didn’t care. There they were, jubilant that they enforced the law and that’s all that mattered. This got me wondering about how environmental law can be enforced without violating people’s rights.

Years later, I was at a consultation on climate change and human rights in Geneva and one of the participants asked me, “So, are you a human rights lawyer or an environmental lawyer?” And I asked, “Does it matter?” I then realized that the “silo mentality,” which I had observed in Sri Lanka, is actually a global phenomenon!

What memorable experiences have you had doing your research?

I don’t conduct field research in other countries, as my work is more global in nature, but I often get invited to speak at international conferences and conduct training programs all over the world. Often, participants come from a particular discipline and do not realize that their work has an impact on other areas (for example, human rights officials do not realize that environmental issues have an impact on human rights or environmental officials enforcing climate laws do not realize that they have to take human rights into consideration) and it is interesting to see their reaction when they realize the interconnectedness of their work and that they need to take an interdisciplinary approach particularly to issues to like climate change. To see their reaction is well worth my efforts.

What classes do you teach?
I teach two seminar classes at the Law School – (a) International Environmental Law and (b) Climate Change, Human Rights and the Environment.  While these are geared toward law students, I welcome (and often get) graduate students from other disciplines.

Why do you believe is it important to conduct international research?
There is so much to learn from other countries (and globally) that it is very important to conduct research internationally. Particularly with my area of research (climate change, international law, and human rights), this is not only desirable, but absolutely necessary. Given the disproportionate impact of climate change on marginalized and improvised communities and countries, learning their coping mechanisms, what their experiences are, and how we can do things differently to help them without having a “savior mentality” are crucial.  In addition, these communities have much to offer by way of lessons that we can learn from them.

I also love to travel internationally and there is so much one can learn from other communities, their cultures and different ways of addressing the challenges they face. I am often pleasantly surprised by people’s hospitality, generosity, and community spirit. I also like the challenge of navigating a new system, particularly when I don’t speak the native language.

What motivates you to do this work?
I strongly believe in justice and that the law can (and should) do a lot to promote and ensure justice (just as the law can be used as a tool of repression to marginalize, exclude, and demonize certain groups).  Having grown up in Sri Lanka, done graduate studies in England, now living in the US, and having traveled extensively, I have seen vast disparities and injustices in the world.  I think it is important to reduce these disparities if we are to achieve justice in relation to income, race issues, and also climate change.  I have also realized that these justice issues are inter-related and intertwined and one cannot address one kind of injustice without addressing the others. For example, climate justice, racial justice, economic justice, intergenerational justice, and gender justice are all interrelated.

What languages do you speak?

Sinhalese (mother tongue, fluent), French (conversational) and Spanish (beginner)

Is there anything else you’d like to share about your work?

I think education and raising awareness are key to addressing climate change and other justice issues. In the US there are so many “deniers,” even though science is established on the anthropogenic contribution to climate change. Teaching children about the importance of addressing climate change and other justice issues and what they can do about them from a very young age is crucial.  Similarly, all undergraduates should learn about them. I think as educators, we have a responsibility to educate the younger generation about the impact of these injustices and that decisions we take in our day to day lives could have repercussions thousands of miles away (in relation to climate change). I take this role very seriously.

See department profile here.