RWI recently organized a regional meeting in Bangkok for National Human Rights Institutions in Asia to discuss human rights, the environment and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The meeting was the third phase of RWI’s Blended Learning Course on Human Rights and the Environment in the Framework of the Sustainable Development Goals, and was dedicated to NHRIs sharing cases of how they are working with the relation between human rights and the environment.
RWI’s Programme Officer, Emily Hanna, took the opportunity to speak with Sajida Majdy, one of the participants from the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives, about environmental degradation and the work of the Commission in a country that is on the frontline of climate change.
Can you tell me about the environmental challenges you are facing in the Maldives?
Climate change and its adverse effects are the most talked about issue when it comes to environmental challenges in the Maldives. And while this is a serious issue, we do have several other immediately pressing challenges. One such issue is erosion. The reasons for this are both natural and man-made; changing monsoons, wave action, formation of islands, natural disasters, coral mining, land reclamation and building harbours to name a few.
In the capital city Male, there is also the issue of air pollution and we have a major problem with trash – we actually have an island, Thilafushi that is used as a final dumpsite for waste. The island is a health hazard to people who work on it. It is also an environmental disaster, given that waste from the island seeps into the ocean damaging the coral reefs and sea life. The government has received aid from foreign donor agencies for waste management projects. Right now, a state owned company is responsible for collecting household garbage. There are some success stories in the other atolls in Maldives in to disposing waste such as in Ukulhas where they use natural waste to make compost for plants.
Another example is, to address the housing crisis in the capital Male, an artificial island was reclaimed 20 minutes away from Male’ and people have been living there since the early 2000s. One of the presidential promises was to connect Male and Hulhumale with a bridge which the last administration delivered on. The environmental impact assessment identified possible damages to the coral reef due to land reclamation. While many were happy with the bridge, at the time construction started, surfers raised concerns that the bridge will destroy surf breaks. And after the completion of the bridge there were complaints regarding the construction debris that was left in the area which could result in serious injuries to both people and the environment.
The case we chose to bring from our Commission to discuss in this meeting concerns challenges faced due to damages to a sewage system in one of the islands of Maldives, causing it to leak in several places. This was a case lodged at the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM). Another environment related case lodged at HRCM relates to health complaints by neighbours due to use of agricultural chemicals used in farming.
We don’t get a lot of environment related complaints as such, which is surprising given the issues we do have. Perhaps we could expand our horizons and take initiative in identifying environmental issues, because many cases that we investigate in the Commission aren’t always lodged by a victim – we do identify issues and initiate investigations. For example if we hear about a human rights issue in the media, then we go and carry out an investigation.
Environmental issues are rather neglected, which is sad for an island like the Maldives.
Do you think that the lack of complaints on environmental cases is due to the population in general not seeing that relation between how the environment affects the enjoyment of human rights?
Yes, it is possible that people are unaware that they can come to the Commission for environment related cases. This could be due to a lack of awareness on the right to a clean and healthy environment being a human right.
Understandably, people are more concerned about the current reality rather than what could happen in the future. It is one of the disadvantages anywhere in the world when it comes to the environment – focusing on current issues and putting climate change on the side, and waiting until something really bad happens. We just got a new administration on the 17th November, and they seem to be really environmentally conscious; environment protection has been included in the first 100 days’ goals set by this administration. I just hope it’s something they are really going to work on rather than something that they are just putting out there to make their manifesto look appealing.
How do you think this Blended Learning Course could benefit the work of the Commission in human rights protection and promotion?
I hope that I can use what I have learned to propose to the Commission to be more active and put more focus on environmental issues than we do now. We have these thematic groups that focus on priority areas. Currently there are five of them; women, children, migrant workers, health and education. Perhaps we could propose to review the areas and include environment as one of the priority areas as well. That way we can be more vocal in this area and work on raising awareness among the people on environment as a human right as well. So I’m hoping that after this training I could use the information we received to propose to the Commission to give more importance to environmental issues.
How do you think the environment and sustainable development are important for the realizing of human rights?
Environmental factors affect all of us. Things such as clean water, food, air and shelter are basic needs. In order to have the life that development promises us, we need first to have access to those basic needs. Development that comes at the expense of environment will eventually lead us to a place where our basic needs are not met. This is already happening in some parts of the world. This is why sustainable development is important; so that the development plans take into account everything including environment and human rights.