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As Asean environmental rights draft takes shape, advocates fear weakened safeguards

Hundreds of activists have been killed in the region in recent years. A joint declaration to protect environmental defenders is being developed, and could be adopted by the end of the year.

Palawan Philippines mining protest
Residents in Palawan, Philippines protesting against activities of the Ipilan Nickel Mining Corp in 2023. Image: Alyansa Tigil Mina.

Southeast Asian activists are fighting to beef up a regional declaration on environmental rights and calling for stronger protection of land defenders. 

Civil society groups say they are concerned that a draft statement, currently being formulated at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), lacks teeth. The bloc is targeting for the text, which is not expected to carry legal weight, to be adopted by member nations this year. A seven-page document was published by Asean earlier this month for public consultation.

Over 300 land and environmental defenders in Southeast Asia have been killed since 2012, forming just under a fifth of the global figures, according to rights group Global Witness.

The Philippines and Indonesia are the region’s deadliest countries for environmental defenders, while advocates have been jailed across the region, on what critics say are frequently trumped-up charges. Earlier this week, two activists were reportedly abducted in Pangasinan, a Philippine province north of capital Manila.

A regional agreement on environmental rights – such as those in Europe and Latin America – is seen among civil society groups as a key step towards reducing such attacks.

“Environmental defenders need mechanisms that not only document, monitor and react to attacks when they happen. We need preventive measures and accountability mechanisms,” said Lia Mai Torres, head of secretariat for the Asia Pacific Network of Environment Defenders, which has been organising online town halls to gather feedback on the Asean draft text.

“If these [measures] are merely recommended and not required, what would compel states to follow them, especially since many states are not always welcome to the opinions of civil society groups? Our lives are at stake here, along with the communities bearing the brunt of ecological collapse,” Torres told Eco-Business.

Sustainable development rights

The Asean draft text, stemming from work that started in 2021, states that everyone is entitled to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, and has the right to protect such conditions.

It calls for governments to better prevent violence and harassment against those fighting environmental harm, through legal and judicial means, as well as providing access to information and decision-making.

Member states should consider setting up a rapid response system to address attacks against those championing environmental rights, the text recommends. It also floats transboundary environmental impact assessments for projects that are expected to have regional environmental impacts, without providing examples.

It specifies some areas where environmental rights need strengthening, such as in air quality, global warming, biodiversity, water, food and oceans. There is mention of combating transboundary haze, addressing loss and damage, and protecting people against climate disasters. The declaration should apply to the private sector as far as possible, the draft states.

It also contains provisions marked out as lacking consensus, such as suggestions for governments and businesses to conduct sustainability reporting and strengthen due diligence procedures.

There appears to be hesitancy in using the term Indigenous peoples, and sensitivity around wielding legal power against governments – a clause on access to justice and remedies has wording on “rectifications of breaches of an obligation under national law” still under debate.

Wrangling on details

Eco-Business understands that the latest consultation draft has been condensed from an earlier copy totalling around 20 pages, and that several “substantive” points on areas such as pollution, climate adaptation, protecting vulnerable groups and plastics were dropped.

The text was initially planned in 2022 as a framework, suggesting concrete recommendations be provided to policymakers, but is now being developed as a joint declaration, which some fear may only cover general principles.

Civil society groups involved in drafting the document have been negotiating to keep the most important details. Rocky Guzman, deputy director of the Asian Research Institute for Environmental Law, said advocates are “very, very pleased” that an article concerning environmental rights defenders has been preserved thus far.

“It has been quite challenging to retain that in the draft. In previous working group meetings it was at major risk of being removed,” Guzman said. The subsection calls for more recognition and protection of environmental rights defenders.

In response to queries, Professor Amara Pongsapich, Thailand representative to the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights and chair of the environmental rights working group, said that the declaration will be supplemented by a regional plan of action – called for in the existing draft – which will provide details on how to implement substantive rights and stakeholder engagement.

Guzman added that seeking feedback from environmental defenders out in the field, the most important group, could be difficult given work on the text will resume in May. At a consultation session with civil society groups last week, participants also asked if stateless individuals can be reached for feedback, and whether any resultant agreements can be translated into subnational laws.

Other activists are more scathing about the regional initiative. Kennedy Michael, co-founder of Gabungan Darurat Iklim (climate emergency coalition) Malaysia, said that instead of Asean, grassroots organisations should have developed the draft, to help them hold policymakers to account and better protect individual citizens. Governments have been involved in attacks on environmental defenders, he noted.

“The draft is not worth the paper it is written on,” he told Eco-Business.

As it stands, the declaration will need absolute consensus from all 10 Asean member states to be adopted. The bloc consists of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Legal protection for activism is relatively weak in Asia, with Mongolia being the only state with a law protecting human rights defenders, according to data from the Asia Pacific Network of Environment Defenders. Two bills to protect human rights and environmental defenders have not been passed in the Philippines. Asean adopted a human rights declaration in 2012, which briefly mentions environmental sustainability as an entitlement for citizens. 

Elsewhere, multilateral agreements such as the Escazu Agreement, focusing on Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Aarhus Convention, mainly signed by European countries, provide legally-binding safeguards. The Aarhus Convention also has a special rapporteur who investigates attacks on activists.

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