Bangkok/Vientiane (13 November 2023) – “You are not air which I’ll die living without. You do not mean that much to me,” sang a representative from Lao PDR’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment in Lao language at the beginning of his presentation to his fellow Government officials, highlighting how air is important to human beings and human rights. The verse was taken from a famous Lao pop song, as the official pointed out, articulating their close relationship to nature.
On 18-19 October 2023, the UN Human Rights Office for South-East Asia led a UN team, comprised of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN Resident Coordinator’s Office (RCO) in Lao PDR, to hold a two-day workshop on the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment at the invitation of the Government of Lao PDR. The workshop was supported by the Governments of Sweden and Germany.
“The Government of Lao PDR has a very clear policy on the promotion and protection of human rights and also on the preservation of the environment, particularly in the Article 19 of the Lao PDR’s Constitution which stipulated that the State supports the protection, restoration, and development of natural resources with the aim to achieve sustainable environmental goals,” said Phoukhong Sisoulath, Director General of the Department of Treaty and Law, Lao PDR’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the opening of the workshop.
This was a second workshop in a series that convened 37 Government officials from Lao PDR’s key ministries and state agencies aimed at raising awareness of international human rights standards and obligations under Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) on prevention, protection and redress to address climate change and environmental degradation, notably on people in vulnerable situations who experience heighted exposure and vulnerability to climate and environmental-induced human rights harm.
With over 60% of the workforce in Lao PDR engaged in agriculture as their primary livelihood, a significant portion of the population will be adversely impacted by increasingly erratic weather patterns that affect food security and adequate and clean water sources.
Lao PDR is swiftly moving towards its goal of becoming the “Battery of South-East Asia” with more than 70 dams already in operation across the country. Without significant adequate environmental and human rights safeguards, the precarity for the country’s ecosystems and biodiversity is dramatically increasing as are, by extension, the risks to people’s rights to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
It is crucial to ensure a fully people-centered approach to development projects that they are designed and based on, from their inception, meaningful and broad consultation with the general public and particularly those most-affected. Independent and credible human rights impact assessments for such projects must consistently be undertaken with comprehensive and timely implementation of the outcomes and recommendations prior to the project’s initiation to ensure that risks to the full spectrum of people’s rights can be adequately and meaningfully addressed and mitigated.
“This includes ensuring that people, especially communities living in and around the area of the projects, are adequately informed, meaningfully consulted and compensated for the loss of land and livelihoods,” said Bakhodir Burkhanov, UN Resident Coordinator in Lao PDR in his opening remarks, stressing the importance of public participation which is a fundamental principle of the 2030 agenda and the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
“As an official from the Ministry of Agriculture, which is not the main Government office dealing directly with UN mechanisms and human rights, I am so grateful that I had a chance to attend this workshop, so I can apply what I learned to my work at the ministry,” a Lao official shared during the workshop while asking for additional resources relevant to her area of work.
Lao PDR is assuming the ASEAN presidency in 2024. In March 2023, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) agreed for the ASEAN Environmental Rights Working Group to draft the first-ever framework on environmental rights in the region with the technical support provided by UN Human Rights, UNEP and UN ESCAP. The working group convened the first and second meetings in 2023 to develop the framework and discussed the possible adoption of the regional instrument by leaders of ASEAN countries by 2024. If adopted, the framework would be a milestone document which will guide domestic laws and policies in South-East Asia.
Supporting States towards the full realization of the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is part of UN Human Rights’ mandate following landmark resolutions recognizing the right to a healthy environment by the Human Rights Council in October 2021 and the UN General Assembly in July 2022.