By John Leo Algo
The year 2023 marks the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, offering a timely opportunity for reflection on the intricate relationship between the environment and human rights.
When we hear the word ‘environment’, our minds quickly go to nature itself, and rightfully so. Yet at its most basic definition, this word refers to anything that surrounds us. Using this lens, we can say that protecting our environment also involves caring for other people, including their human rights.
The environmental rights issue has emerged as a prominent global agenda in recent years, largely as a response to the worsening triple planetary crisis. In July 2022, the UN recognized the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment as a human right. While it is not legally-binding, such a resolution influences a shift in existing sociopolitical norms recognized by UN members, as represented in their national and international laws.
This can be seen in environmental rights being a critical issue in the ASEAN amid growing challenges and threats. For example, the Philippines remains Asia’s most dangerous country to environmental defenders. Activists in countries like Cambodia and Viet Nam are also experiencing cases of harassment, abuse, and/or violence linked to ecologically-harmful activities. The region is also highly-vulnerable to several environmental issues, most notably climate change, plastic pollution, and biodiversity loss.
As a result, a new regional framework is needed for protecting and upholding environmental rights of its citizens. It is with this context that the ASEAN Environmental Rights Framework (ERF) is currently being formulated.
The ERF must contain strong clauses for protecting the rights and well-being of environmental human rights defenders (EHRDs) and frontline communities. These should include their substantive and procedural rights; to name a few the right to life, freedom of speech and expression, and participation in environmental decision-making. ASEAN member-states have to create a framework that guarantees a safe and secure environment for these individuals and groups to exercise their rights.
Of utmost priority on this aspect are the Indigenous peoples (IPs) within the region. There was no specific clause on IP rights included in the 2012 ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, despite their role in protecting ecosystems and biodiversity and the well-documented threats they have faced for decades. The ERF must rectify this, not only through the protection of their substantive and procedural rights, but also allowing the 100 million-plus Indigenous peoples to have a voice in the decision-making processes that directly impact their communities and the environments on which they depend and protect.
Furthermore, the ERF must remove barriers that prevent or limit access to environmental justice, such as costly legal procedures and bureaucratic inefficiencies that delay decisions. ASEAN member-states should enforce strategies and address gaps to ensure higher accessibility for their citizens to administrative and legal measures related to environmental rights. Among recommended mechanisms should include providing free legal and technical assistance to impoverished stakeholders and the use of native languages in resolving disputes and cases.
Another barrier that must be addressed is on environmental denialism and disinformation. Failure to denounce, prohibit, and punish those responsible for such acts effectively limits the capacity of communities to exercise their environmental rights., if not outright causing unjust loss and damage to them. ASEAN member-states should enact new laws and policies to curb denialism and disinformation, while accounting for emerging modes of communications technologies (i.e., social media).
Access to environmental justice can also be improved through enhancing existing strategies on data management and strategic communications of key information. Key information such as procedural and substantive rights, ways to access legal and judicial instruments, urgent environmental threats, and how to deal with harassment or human rights abuses must be disseminated in a comprehensible and timely manner to different sectors, especially to the most vulnerable peoples.
These steps are part of strengthening environmental literacy that is needed if the ASEAN is going to deal with issues that need long-term, consistent policymaking and implementation of solutions, supported by an educated and empowered citizenry. If those expected to lead in rights-based decision-making do not even know the basic human rights, what chance would millions of others have in these processes?
Enhancing environmental democracy should be required for ASEAN and its member-states. We are all stakeholders to addressing environmental issues; therefore, we all have the right to be represented or actively participate in decision-making. Mechanisms must be established to ensure environmental decision-making, from the regional to the local levels, would be inclusive, fair, culturally-appropriate, and gender-sensitive.
The ERF must also emphasize the protection of the rights and well-being of those impacted by the inevitable just transition towards more sustainable systems. These stakeholders must include the most vulnerable peoples (i.e., youth, women, IPs), workers and communities either dependent on systems and infrastructures to be phased down or phased out (i.e., fossil fuels) or affected by the implementation of more sustainable systems (i.e., renewable energy).
The ASEAN should also align the framework with other multilateral and regional agreements, considering the social, political, economic, and cultural implications of the environmental rights agenda. Among these instruments include the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Convention on Biological Diversity, UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous People, and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
As much as we should call for strong language and these non-negotiables in a legally-binding instrument like how the ERF should be, any human rights framework is only as strong and effective as the people ready to uphold it. We have seen this with the decades of work by thousands of civil society groups and community representatives that influenced the recognition of the right to a healthy environment.
For us living within the ASEAN, we must build on these gains and ensure the development and proper implementation of an environmental rights framework that truly meets and responds to the needs of current and future generations. After all, our right to a healthy environment and a sustainable future is non-negotiable.
John Leo is the Deputy Executive Director for Programs and Campaigns of Living Laudato Si’ Philippines and a member of Aksyon Klima Pilipinas and the Asia-Pacific Youth Advisory Group on Environmental and Climate Justice under the UNDP in Asia and the Pacific. He has been a climate and environment journalist since 2016.