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May 20, 2024
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Southeast Asia Faces Crucial Week for Environmental Rights

Last week, millions of people in Southeast Asia grappled with a record-setting heatwave that triggered thousands of school closures, put unprecedented pressure on power grids, and led to fatal heat strokes.

The brutal temperatures underscore the need to hammer out the details of a regional environmental rights declaration, work that is underway today in Jakarta as a working group formed by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) convenes.

The draft already recognizes the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, to access environmental information, and to participate in environmental decisions. It also tackles transboundary haze, a recurrent cause for dispute among ASEAN members when smoke from fires leads to overwhelming air pollution across national borders.

The declaration has glaring omissions, however. To address them, Human Rights Watch urged the working group to include provisions on corporate accountability, climate-related mobility – when the effects of climate change, such as sea-level rise, compel people to move – and to ensure the declaration advances Indigenous rights.

Despite all ASEAN countries endorsing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the draft does not use the term “Indigenous peoples,” nor does it acknowledge their rights over their resources and territories. Further, it does not recognize Indigenous peoples’ contributions as the most effective caretakers of nature.

“ASEAN should place Indigenous rights at the heart of the declaration, such as the right to free, prior, and informed consent, rights to tenure, and the requirement for safeguards and accountability mechanisms,” said Dr. June Rubis, cofounder of Building Initiatives in Indigenous Heritage Sarawak. The Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact, a grassroots organization, called on the working group to ensure Indigenous participation in the drafting process.

The draft is also weak in addressing corporate accountability. As Human Rights Watch’s work in Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and elsewhere shows, companies are often responsible for environmental destruction or other rights abuses. The declaration should reflect the obligation of states to regulate businesses.

Confronted with rising sea levels and extreme weather events, the declaration should also acknowledge the need for greater rights protections for people compelled to move. Planned relocations should be community-led and carried out with transparency, participation, and nondiscrimination.

The working group has an opportunity to develop a framework in a region with no regional human rights treaty. But it cannot do so without recognizing those most affected by environmental abuses, or full accountability for those responsible.

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