Regional workshop highlights human rights linkages with environmental sustainability

In a two-day regional workshop organized by Development Cooperation Section, the Embassy of Sweden, development practitioners and researchers explored potential linkages between environmental sustainability with a human rights based approach. The key take-away message from the workshop:  incorporating a human-right based approach (HRBA) into environmental sustainability initiatives can potentially benefit the impact of these initiatives.

Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) – Asia as a key partner of Swedish International Development Agency (Sida) and as Sida-supported SUMERNET Secretariat, was invited to participate Annual Regional Workshop 2014 which had the central theme of “Interaction between Environmental Sustainability and a Human Rights-Based Approach”.

Asia Pacific, as a region, experiences significant economic growth in the last decades and this growth is essential for the countries in the region in alleviating poverty. However, economic growth is not sufficient to ensure sustainability, other factors such as environmental impacts, climate change, disaster risk and the loss of biodiversity, will have to be taken into account. Based on the best practices of development initiatives, integration of HRBA into development programme, will make these efforts more effective in ensuring that the interests of poor and vulnerable groups are prioritised and that those who make policy decisions are held accountable for the impacts caused by their decisions.

In recent times, the legal framework of countries grants more rights for people over access to natural resources and environmental protection. Presently over 100 national laws, constitutions, and policies throughout the world ensuresthe right to a sustainable, clean and healthy environment, imposes a duty on states to prevent environmental harm, or emphasises the protection of the environment or natural resources. Furthermore, some of the legal provisions also provide individuals or groups with the right to file legal action to protect the environment or fight against industries who cause pollution.

Although, there is increasing recognition of environment-related human rights, the lack of capacity of governments to fulfil their obligations as outlined in legal frameworks combined with the lack of awareness and capacity of communities to claim and exercise these rights are the main obstacles to the realisation of environment-related human rights.

Government of Sweden has been supporting extensive programme addressing environmental sustainability in the region. The gaps as described previously on addressing environment-related human right will have the potential of undermining the outcomes of these environment sustainability initiatives. Therefore, Sida recognises the strategic importance of HRBA in improving these initiatives. Through this workshop involving partners in Asia, Sida aimed to instill the HRBA approach and its potential benefits of linking this with environmental sustainability initiatives.

The following figure elaborates some examples of programmes that include four human right principles:, (1) Non-Discrimination, (2) Openness and Transparency, (3) Meaningful Participation, and (4) Accountability, and a set of guiding questions for forging the links between environmental sustainability programmes and HRBA.

Ms. AnnaMaria Oltorp, Head of Development Cooperation Section, the Embassy of Sweden, in her opening remarks confirmed the importance of integrating HRBA into Sida-supported environmental sustainability initiatives in the region, especially on the issue of transboundary infrastructure development, such as hydropower dams in the Mekong region that has proved detrimental not only for environmental sustainability but also for the rights of affected communities.

Through sessions on key concepts, principles and practices of HRBA, participants are guided to relate the HRBA to their own work. Two cases were discussed: “The Case of Kampong Speu and other Cambodian sugar plantations” and “The Case of the Xayaburi Hydropower Project”. The workshop participants realised that it is very important to start introducing linkages between human rights and their work in environmental sustainability. Dr. Chayanis Krittasudthacheewa, SUMERNET Programme Manager, who also represented SEI-Asia acknowledged this. After this workshop, she will share the HRBA workshop with the SUMERNET research projects and partners, including principles in assessing the research plans and supporting their implementation on the ground.

One of the highlights of the 2-day workshop was it used participatory approaches ensuring the active involvement of participants in the session and capturing insights into visualization. The lead facilitator, Ms. Karen Edwards, used various techniques throughout the sessions: ice-breaking introduction, buzz words, world café, learn visualisation, etc. From the atmosphere in the workshop, the participants seemed to enjoy the interaction and discussion within the sessions, and appreciated Sida for their creative approach to workshop facilitation. In his closing remarks, the Ambassador of Sweden, H.E. Klass Molin acknowledged the relevant and timely focus of the workshop for the region in addressing human rights issues especially since in the previous years the Embassy of Sweden has taken up related issues such as corruption and gender in its program work.