Prosperous and Green in the Anthropocene

The human rights to a healthy environment

In 2020 RAPP, the Regional Asia Pacific Programme, presented a thematic study on the Right to a Safe, Clean, and Sustainable Environment called Prosperous and green in the Anthropocene: The human right to a healthy environment in Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia faces unprecedented social-ecological challenges that have wide-ranging implications for both human rights and the environment. Recognizing the human right to a healthy environment helps protect people and nature. It also ensures the conditions for continued sustainable development and prosperity.

“The purpose of this publication, led by twelve local law and policy researchers, was twofold. Firstly: to strengthen the knowledge base on the human rights obligations States have in relation to the environment in Southeast Asia by mapping Southeast Asian countries’ recognition of the right to a healthy environment, highlighting good practices and examining progress, innovations and obstacles in realising this right. Secondly, the publication aimed to strengthen local capacity to conduct human rights research in environmental contexts.”
Victor Bernard, Programme Officer and co-author

Southeast Asian countries rank among the highest in the world for forest and mangrove loss, extinction of plant and animal species, climate-related disasters, household air pollution and smoke from forest fires. This report displays that countries recognising the right to a healthy environment are in a better position to tackle these challenges. “The study shows that the
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) recognises the right to a ‘safe, clean and sustainable environment’ in the 2012 ASEAN Human Rights Declaration endorsed by all member states”, Bernard says.

“This fact highlights an emerging consensus of human rights’ undeniable link with a healthy environment. Most ASEAN member states have recognised the right to a healthy environment in laws, policies and court decisions, with 4 of the 10 countries explicitly recognising this right in their constitutions.”

The study presents several examples of how Southeast Asian countries have recognised the right to a healthy environment in courts. One such example is the decision of the Supreme Court of Thailand ordering the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand to pay compensation to 131 plaintiffs for damage to their health, in relation to a power plant project that displaced over 30 000 people.

The Supreme Court of the Philippines ruled that a group of minors, questioning the granting of commercial logging licenses over 3.89 million hectares of land, had the constitutional right to ‘a balanced and healthful ecology’ as being linked with the right to health.

There is still much work to be done, globally and in South East Asia. On ‘Realising the right to a healthy environment in Southeast Asia’, the authors of the study propose that ASEAN countries could:

• Recognise the right to a healthy environment in the constitution or on court decisions, and adopt a combination of laws, judicial decisions and policies that are needed to implement this right.
• Adopt a regional instrument similar to the Escazu agreement adopted by Latin America and the Caribbean countries or become party to the Aarhus Convention, a European agreement that is now open to non-European Member States.
• Strengthen and expand the mandate of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), so that it can promote compliance and conduct reviews relating to the right to a healthy environment.
• Continue to support specialised environmental courts and national human rights institutions (NHRI) in support of the implementation of the right to a healthy environment.
• Support the integration of human rights in multilateral environmental agreements, for example, in the post-2020 global biodiversity framework, which is currently being negotiated.

“Moving forward, we need to move from words to action. We must translate the findings and recommendations, through action-oriented and targeted briefs and training, into practical ways. Only then, various actors, such as judges, NHRI representatives, businesses, policy makers, and ASEAN, can contribute to the realization of the right to a healthy environment within their respective mandates.”
Victor Bernard

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