Disrupting the International Law Agenda

Dr Amy Maguire, from the Faculty of Business and Law at the University of Newcastle (UON), is putting the rights of displaced people back on the agenda in international law.

Amy Maguire 

Amy's research in the area of 'self-determination' is a topic that has been off the radar in international law but it could soon be sharply back in focus.

Self-determination is the collective human right of a people to determine their political, social, cultural and economic future. Dr Maguire's research has focused on self-determination for peoples who claim a contemporary colonial experience that has not been adequately addressed by international law or the nation states in which they live.

"These cases can become complicated when a group is making a self-determination claim under international law – for example an indigenous population - yet the settler population has established their own identity, such as we've seen in Australia. So we have two parties asserting self-determination on the same territory. We must be careful in this instance to balance the rights of both parties and avoid repeating the injustices of the past."

The right to self-determination is not only relevant to indigenous populations but can have far reaching implications for displaced peoples all over the world. Dr Maguire is now extending her research to peoples displaced by climate change, including those from small Pacific island states who are beginning to bear the effects of environmental change.

"Self-determination is a concept that we can draw on from the past that has real applications in the present, given the large number of people who are already starting to seek refuge from environmental change in neighbouring countries. When these people are relocated, a number of legal questions arise such as their right to remain together, to maintain their identity, or maintain some forms of sovereignty."

As sea levels rise and drought spreads the question of self-determination could become more prominent in international law. In 2013, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that approximately 22 million people were displaced as a result of climate change, a figure that has been projected to reach 200 million by 2050.

Dr Maguire is now collaborating with Dr Jeffrey McGee at the University of Tasmania to explore how the right to self-determination could help to shape official responses to climate change. Importing self-determination into the field of climate change governance would be a world-first from the two Australian researchers. 

"The rights of people aren't sufficiently influencing decision making in the response to climate change. The debate has focused more on governmental responses and emissions reduction targets but in the end, it's the people impacted whose experiences and rights ought to be respected."

An advocate for humanity in controversial public debates, Dr Maguire has become a popular legal commentator with multiple articles published on The Conversation. Her legal commentary spans several key areas including refugees, asylum seekers, Indigenous rights, and capital punishment. The most recent article published by Dr Maguire on The Conversation addresses Australia's role in the abolition of capital punishment world-wide.

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