Advocates in Asia this month came a step closer to helping their countries address increasingly cross-border regional environmental problems. At the fifth All-Asia Public Interest Environmental Law Conference held from August 17 to 19, 2007, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, keynote speaker C.S. Karim, head adviser of Bangladesh’s environmental and agriculture ministries, opened the meeting by pointing to Bangladesh’s current flood victims and alluding to the world’s millions of foreseeable future environmental refugees. His words came as a call for greater international cooperation to factor environmental costs and social justice into development planning, to change behaviors, and to mitigate human suffering.
The conference was hosted by the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association with support from ABA ROLI’s Asia Division and the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW). It brought together 50 leading environmental public interest lawyers from India, China, Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan, representing a diversity of developing countries that are both experiencing and contributing to environmental problems. These regional and global problems include climate change, air and water pollution, hazardous waste dumping, and development-driven depletion of timber, coal, oil, steel and other extractive resources. The three days of discussion at the conference offered opportunities for “newcomers to learn from experienced lawyers” and for “sharing a diversity of legal activities and strategies to address the leading challenges that have come to the forefront” of environmental concern, in the words of conference co-organizer S. Rizwana Hasan of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association.
The conference made it clear that promising new legal advocacy strategies are emerging. Delegates from India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh described the development of legal theories protecting the environment in the context of people’s livelihood from natural resources. Guest experts from U.S.-based environmental organizations, such as Alice Thomas of Earthjustice, shared successes in inter-American regional forums that framed climate change impacts as threats to human rights. In places facing political interference to judicial independence, like Cambodia and Burma, advocates spoke about raising public legal awareness and conducting legally-information information campaigns about the environmental rights of individuals. Many described the rise of Environmental Impact Assessment laws in countries in the Asia, which offer potential new tools for raising consciousness and taking into account the environmental impacts of regional trade policies, foreign development projects, and other transnational activity. Lawyers in China explained how new “open government information” rules might be used by lawyers in other countries seeking to hold Chinese companies accountable for their environmental harms abroad.
In the end, participants enthusiastically expressed the great benefit they derived from having the chance to assemble, and they discussed ways to maintain the channels of communication and cooperation that had been opened between them. Everyone left inspired to “keep bringing cases, even if they fail,” in the summary words of Sri Lankan moderator Lalanath de Silva of ELAW, “because major changes in policy are rare and unpredictable…and courts that don’t agree may nevertheless become educated in ways that later lead to change.”