Human Rights Defender 26-1: Environmental justice and human rights in Asia

From the guest editor, Dr Pichamon Yeophantong:

2016 was a landmark year for environmental progress globally. It marked the official launch of the United Nations ambitious Sustainable Development Goals, which further advanced its predecessor’s—the Millennium Development Goals—emphasis on strengthening the international community’s commitment to environmental sustainability. Considered a milestone in multilateral environmental cooperation, last year also saw the Paris Agreement on climate change come into force, as global awareness of how environmental change and the attendant problems impact human well-being reached a new peak. 
But 2016 was also a year of continued ecological decline. Especially in Asia, the region faced an onslaught of environment-related woes. China experienced some of the country’s worst bouts of air pollution on record. Beijing and twenty-one other cities choked under a heavy blanket of smog, leading authorities to issue a pollution ‘red alert’ (the highest level of a four-tier warning system). Crucially, this reflects the broader air pollution crisis facing East Asia—a result of the transport of ‘dirty air’ and yellow dust from China, as well as from local polluting industries. South Korea, for example, ranks 17 out of 18 on the Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index. 
In India, a situation of drought-induced water scarcity has resulted in ongoing conflict in Kartuctaka state, where riots and violence broke out over the distribution of the Cauvery River’s water resources. 2016 will also be remembered in Vietnam for the unprecedented ‘marine life disaster’. Toxic discharges, reportedly containing traces of cyanide and carbolic acids, from a Taiwanese-owned steel plant had caused around seventy tonnes of dead fish to wash ashore along Vietnam’s 200-kilometre coastline. Not only were fishing communities and tourism severely affected in four provinces, the severity of the disaster was such that rare public protests demanding social and environmental accountability were staged across the country.
Without a clean and healthy natural environment, human development would not be possible. The ability to breathe non-hazardous air and drink safe water is a basic human right. This is particularly true in less industrialised societies, where livelihoods are closely tied to the environmental services that provide food (e.g. fish) and other necessary resources (e.g. wood). It is in this way that environmental injustice and social inequality prove inextricable, as the uneven distribution of environmental harm and degradation (think pollution) often exacerbates pre-existing inequality among certain social and minority groups. 
To achieve environmental justice, however, observing the principles of distributive justice alone is not sufficient. Equally important is adherence to the rule of law, as well as the consistent and fair enforcement of standards and regulations. Given the prevalence of ‘governance poverty’ in developing Asia, many countries in the region still suffer from the lack of such procedural justice. This is evident from instances of problematic land acquisition and forced displacement, especially those involving foreign investment projects. A case in point is the controversial, but government-sanctioned, Boeung Kak Lake development project in Cambodia. A foreign venture, it has widely been criticised for its failure to respect community rights and acquire land in a transparent manner.6 In more serious cases, procedural injustice may be manifest in alleged acts of (state-led) environmental violence. Here, the disappearances of the Cambodian and Lao activists Chut Wutty and Sombath Somphone—both of whom are discussed in this issue—come to mind.  
Against the backdrop of Asia’s changing social and political landscapes, this issue of the Human Rights Defender explores the intersection of environmental justice and human rights issues. Focusing on cases drawn from China and Southeast Asia, the featured contributions examine the various challenges faced by communities, civil society and the region’s governments in achieving economic modernisation on the one hand, and sustainable development on the other. They also share a common purpose: to distill policy-relevant insights on how current circumstances might be improved. 
The strength of this HRD issue is in its inclusion of a diversity of voices and viewpoints. The contributors include an environmental philosopher (Lu Feng), a documentary filmmaker (Fran Lambrick), seasoned practitioners (Maureen Harris, Pianporn Deetes, Kate Ross, Yuan Wang), academic experts (Kearrin Sims and Sarah Joseph), and the future generation of thinkers (Ming Chin En, Blake Lambert, Michael Thai, and Sean Bowes). The issue also features a special interview with Mirco Kreibich, Director of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung’s Myanmar Program, who shares his critical insights on the state of human rights and the environment in Myanmar before and after the Aung San Suu Kyi leadership.  
Despite the stark realities of ecological degradation and questionable human rights practices in Asia, there remains hope for positive change: the persistent belief that these problems are not insurmountable. But for this change to happen, talk of sustainable development must be accompanied by real action to actualise our environmental and social obligations. As echoed in the first article of this issue, the burden of responsibility rests squarely with all of us—the producers and consumers of both decline and progress.   
Pichamon Yeophantong is a Lecturer in International Relations and Development in the School of Social Sciences at UNSW Sydney, and leads the Environmental Justice and Human Rights Project in Asia at the AHRCentre. She is the guest editor for this issue of the Human Rights Defender.

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