Human Rights and Environment

When the Taung Thaman Lake Started to Smell Rotten

Representatives from Southeast Asian academic institutions and National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) participated last week in a blended learning course on human rights and the environment in Bangkok.

The course was part of the Institute’s regional programme in Asia.

One of the participants, Commissioner Nyunt Swe, was appointed as a member of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission in September 2011. Commissioner Swe tells the Institute he came across the relationship between human rights and the environment only a few months ago, when the Taung Thaman Lake, situated near Mandalay in upper Myanmar and a big tourist attraction, started to smell rotten.

Myanmar human rightsA large amount of dead fish floating in the lake was found to be the cause. This was bad not only in itself but also because the Taung Thaman Lake supports the livelihoods of local fishermen and also provides the local communities with freshwater. Moreover, the lake and the wooden bridge crossing it – believed to be the oldest and longest teak bridge in the world – are major sources of income for local businesses.
Different accounts were given for what had caused the death of the fish. One assumption was that it was hazardous waste from nearby industries that had polluted the water.

Commissioner Swe tells the Institute that the online course on Human Rights and the Environment taught him that if local industries were to blame, it would constitute a violation not only of procedural rights but also of substantive rights.

He says that in relation to this incident, the local people might not have been given sufficient access to information and participation in the decision-making process, nor access to redress and substantive remedy. Their rights to health, food, water and development was violated, he says.

Commissioner Swe believes that such violations of human rights in relation to the environment happen in his country due to the lack of knowledge about this sphere of human rights.

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However, he says that the RWI workshop helps fill this gap and that he now hopefully can apply newfound insights in practice. “We should educate not only local authorities but also people at management levels within industries,” he says. “As you are aware, Myanmar is now opening up and foreign companies are interested to invest in the country. At this point in time, our people should have knowledge of human rights and the environment to avoid unnecessary environmental degradation and violation of human rights of local people.”

More on the Human Rights and Environment Course from RWI

“The connection between human rights and the environment in theory and practice is a field within human rights which has only relatively recently begun to gain in prominence,” says Helena Olsson, RWI Programme Officer.

Environmental agendas and human rights agendas have so far largely developed separately, both legally and in terms of actors involved. However, links and frameworks are clearer today, not least thanks to the work of UN Special Procedures on the matter since 2012.

“The links are also exceedingly clear when looking at human rights challenges in Asia today, and both NHRIs, and academic institutions have important roles to play in promoting and monitoring the human rights in this context,” Olsson says.

The aim of the blended learning course is this to strengthen capacities of NHRIs and academic institutions in Southeast Asia to operate and cooperate effectively in this field.

The workshop was led by Professor Sumudu Atapattu, who is Director of research centers and senior lecturer in human rights and environment at the University of Wisconsin Law School and frequently consulted expert in related UN forums. The workshop also enjoyed the presence and input of regional experts in the field as lecturers and guest speakers. The workshop was preceded by an online component consisting of 30 days of reading and exercises under the instruction of Professor Sumudu and RWI Associate Professor Radu Mares, who is specialised in the area of business and human rights.

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