UN Dialogue on Environmental Rights in Malaysia

Dec 12, 2014

Your honorable, Justice Dato’ Azhar Mohamed, Federal Court Judge

Ir. Ellias Saidin, President, Environmental Management and Research Association of Malaysia

Roger Chan, Chairperson of the Bar Council Committee on Climate Change and Environment

Mr. Mohideen Abdul Kader, Council Member of Sahabat Alam Malaysia

Excellencies and members of the Diplomatic Corps,

Officials of the government of Malaysia,

Colleague Representatives and Members of the United Nations Country Team

Fellow UN Staff and Retired Staff of the United Nations

Members of the Brickfields Asia Collage – staff and students.

Distinguished guests,


Selamat Pagi and Good morning!

On behalf of my UN colleagues, I extend our warmest welcome to all of you to this morning’s UN Dialogue on Environmental Rights in Malaysia as part of a week of celebrations of Human Rights Day 2014. The United Nations Country team, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM), the Global Movement of Moderates Foundation (GMMF), the Bar Council of Malaysia and the Society for the Promotion of Human Rights (PROHAM) are jointly hosting this week of events, in collaboration with the important help and assistance of other actors.

Human Rights Day is a dedicated, but certainly not exclusive, moment in which the UN General Assembly calls upon every individual and every institution in society to remember our commitment enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to recognise, promote and respect the dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of our human family.  Indeed, the global theme for this year’s commemoration, ‘Human Rights 365’, highlights that human rights are rights inherent to all human beings – everybody - everyday, everywhere, and whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, gender identity, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status.  And I wish to stress what I said earlier this week, that these rights, in addition to being universal – for everyone, they are interrelated, indivisible, and inalienable.  This means it is not a menu of rights from which we can select some but not others, or apply them to some people but not others; and they cannot be taken away, denied or transferred.  They are inalienable.

And as reiterated in the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights and numerous other international human rights conventions, declarations and resolutions, it is also the duty of states to protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems. It is essential that we continue our efforts in every country to rise to universal human rights standards, and take deliberate action towards achieving the full realisation of human rights for all, not just because there is a legal obligation to do so but because it is the right thing to do.

The discussions held during this week of events, including the one today, are valuable opportunities to pause and objectively assess our progress, and also where we have fallen short of achieving the full realization of human rights for all.  They assist and encourage us to consider where greater effort is needed for human rights, and in looking ahead, framed by the country’s vision of the future for its people, identify the next steps for the immediate, medium, and long term.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

As Malaysia aspires for developed country status in six years and, towards this end, redesigns an inclusive future, it rightly emphasizes a high income, developed nation through economic growth that is sustainable and the benefits of which are widely spread, and a cohesive, harmonious and civil society.  We applaud the high priority Government assigns to safeguarding the rights of the poorest, most vulnerable, and excluded groups – those in the bottom 40% of this country - and as well on the expansion and stability of the middle class, and on improving and protecting the built and natural environment for Malaysians. As we advance the progress of citizens and the society and economy as a whole, we must take development paths that reduce inequalities and respect our planetary boundaries.

In 1992, the Rio Declaration in Principle 10 declared environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level. At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes. States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available. Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided.

Today, 140 countries incorporate environmental protections in their constitutions, including in some cases, the rights of future generations. In legal systems where a specific environmental right does not exist, general constitutional rights such as the right to life have been interpreted by some courts to encompass environmental rights.

Poverty and environmental degradation are the result of market failures as well as public policy failures. Lack of access to justice and rule of law is a key barrier to transformative change. Environmental justice, which calls for the legal and social empowerment of the poor, and freedom from the inequities that result from entrenched and unsustainable forms of resource use, is one means to combat poverty and inequality and the degradation of our environment, including climate change.

A legal empowerment perspective focuses on putting in place increased access to justice and responsive institutions, enhanced accountability in decision-making over natural resources and the environment, and empowering vulnerable groups such as indigenous peoples and women, who together make up the majority of those living in extreme poverty. It also engages with, and benefits from, a contextual analysis of various political-economy factors driving situations of environmental injustice, systemic impacts of corruption and the central role of the private sector in generating, preventing or remedying social and environmental risks.

Environmental justice movements are driving a shift in policy orientation towards legal regimes that recognize ecosystem services and natural assets as public goods, empower systems of accountability, and expand public access to remedy as foundations of sustainable development. For poor and vulnerable communities, the benefits of a legal empowerment approach go well beyond reform of individual laws and regulations, seeking rather a shift from a political-economy of exclusion and ecological decline to a system of governance conducive to their full participation in decision-making over natural resources and the environment. Without a paradigm shift in how natural resources and the environment are valued and governed, inequality will deepen and post-2015 development goals will be threatened, if not reversed.

Illegal logging, wildlife trafficking, polluting industries and unplanned development leading to degradation of environment are some of the persisting environmental challenges in Malaysia. Similarly, climate change represents an enormous threat to peace and security and a whole host of human rights: the right to food, the right to water and sanitation, the right to development. There is therefore huge scope for human rights courts and non-judicial human rights bodies to treat climate change as an immediate threat to human rights. Such bodies could therefore have important influence on public policy to protect environmental rights and limit policymaking that too narrowly focuses on its some constituents at the expense of others, both within and between countries.  Fossil fuel mining, deforestation, the disturbance of carbon sinks, and the degradation of the oceans, for example, are developments that have significant human rights implications, and we have seen for example, new policies and procedures for not just environmental impact assessments but also human rights impact assessments of development projects emerge in Thailand and other countries around the world.

The establishment of Environmental Courts in 2012 by the government of Malaysia with leadership of The Honourable Tan Sri Arifin Bin Zakaria, the Chief Justice of Malaysia, set out to improve judicial oversight in environmental cases in Malaysia. The vision for such a court is to address primarily the need for swift adjudication of environmental cases.

Ladies and gentlemen,

As you can see, the area of environmental rights is an important and also evolving area.  Today’s dialogue will host four panelists who will focus on the value of taking a rights-based development; examine universal key challenges and innovations arising around the world on environmental justice, based on the inclusive and sustainable use of natural resources and the environment; highlight some environmental rights case studies in Malaysia; and also update on the environmental court and efforts to further strengthen the capacities of the legal community in Malaysia in this area. I am sure we will have an informative and interesting discussion this morning.

In closing I would like to thank Brickfields Asia College for proving us with opportunity to conduct this dialogue in its PJ campus. Brickfields Asia College has hosted us for a number of previous events and also contributed its communication resources to publicize Human Rights week and we are grateful for this support. I wish for you to have a lively dialogue today, and certainly the UN will continue to support to build awareness and understanding, strengthen capacities, and policy and legal reform efforts toward robust protection of the environment, recognising that a clean and healthy environment, a priority of the 11th Malaysia Plan and beyond, is essential to the realisation of fundamental human rights, such as the right to life, personal integrity, family life, health and development.


Thank you.

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