Environmental Justice in South Asia Goes Green

By Irum Ahsan

“The law hath not been dead, though it had slept.” When Shakespeare wrote those lines, he never knew that many, many years down the road, he may actually be referring to the enforcement of environmental law by the judiciary around the world. 

“The law hath not been dead, though it had slept.” When Shakespeare wrote those lines, he never knew that many, many years down the road, he may actually be referring to the enforcement of environmental law by the judiciary around the world.

Back in 2010, Asian judges called for the establishment of a judicial network on the environment during the First Asian Judges Symposium held in Asian Development Bank's (ADB) headquarters. ADB responded by developing a technical assistance project that would work with the judiciaries to develop a judicial network, enhance knowledge and adjudication of environmental law, and improve networking and regional cooperation among judges. This judicial initiative was one of the projects under the Law, Justice and Development program of ADB’s legal department.

Under this project, we have worked with the judiciaries of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand in the ASEAN region, and Bhutan and Pakistan in South Asia. This led to the formal launch of the Asian Judges Network on Environment in December 2013 in Manila during the Second Asian Judges Symposium.

Related to this, ADB, in collaboration with the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, recently hosted the 3rd South Asia Judicial Roundtable on Environmental Justice for Sustainable Green Development in Colombo, Sri Lanka. In organizing this event, we worked closely with the Sri Lankan judiciary headed by its Chief Justice, Honourable Mohan Peiris for almost four months. He saw it as an important opportunity for Sri Lanka, since it is working on restoring its systems after a long era of war. He also emphasized the importance of sustainability of development based on sound environmental principles.

The opening session, inaugurated by Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, was heralded by the orchestrated beating of traditional drums by a professional troupe and lighting of oil lamps by the hosts and heads of the foreign delegations. These two are the most popularly followed rituals in Sri Lanka before initiation of any important event. In attendance were senior officials from the ministries, central bank, police, Attorney General’s office and judiciary in Sri Lanka, together with legal professionals, civil society members, and experts in various fields from South Asia and elsewhere in the world. Leading ADB’s delegation was Vice-President Bruce L. Davis and Deputy General Counsel Ramit Nagpal.

Taking its lead from previous roundtables in Pakistan and Bhutan, this event sought to not only continue dialogue and cooperation in the region, but to look for concrete ways to ensure the enforcement of, and compliance with, environmental laws, and the promotion of environmental justice.

As the title suggests, the nexus and relation between environment and development was highlighted, noting the importance of natural resources for economic prosperity in the region. Sessions discussed topics such as natural capital, urban development, tourism, gender, and community forest management, settlement of environmental disputes, particularly through alternative dispute resolution methods, as well as innovations in environmental justice and the judiciary’s leadership role in promoting environmental sustainability and rule of law.

Judges talked about having a social conscience when making decisions, while discussing the environmental challenges faced by their countries and the entire region. The legal luminaries of South Asia opened their minds to new concepts, such as putting a value on nature, considering the environment in urban development cases, and looking at innovative ways to protect the environment.

Participants also heard from a 16-year-old girl from Pakistan who screened her documentary, “Harvesting Hope,” and talked about pesticide pollution encountered by women cotton farmers in Pakistan. Her presentation was met by emotion and even tears from some of the most hardened faces of the justice system.

Amid the myriad voices feeding into the event, participants managed to agree on the adoption of the Colombo Action Plan, which represents renewed commitment by the judiciaries of South Asia to environmental justice, as well as taking concrete steps toward development of environmental rule of law.

Progress in these areas goes beyond Sri Lanka, of course. Key achievements elsewhere have included the establishment of green benches in Malaysia and Pakistan, an environmental law curriculum developed for training of judges in Pakistan, an environmental certification program for judges in Indonesia, and the development of a green book in Bhutan. All these bode well for the environments of South Asia, which now have a true advocate and a champion in the judiciary.

We are now looking forward to seeing what the judges have in store for the people of South Asia during the next (and 4th) Roundtable in Nepal in 2015.

For those of us in ADB’s legal department, this project is very close to our hearts, because we get a chance to work directly with the Chief Justice of a country who can instantly bring about change if there is sufficient motivation. This is what we are seeing so far and long may it continue!