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From October 22 to November 4, 2023, EarthRights International hosted the twelfth Mekong Legal Advocacy Institute (MLAI) training program for 16 participants from the six Mekong countries – Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The two-week training aims to equip lawyers and legal advocates with knowledge of the environmental and human rights issues that affect local communities in the Mekong region, and the legal and regulatory frameworks that govern those issues. Continuing rapid economic development and investment initiatives in the Mekong region pose challenges to local communities. Building capacity among young advocates is essential to ensuring equity, ecological sustainability, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and human rights protections accompany this economic growth.

Today, on Human Rights Day, we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and EarthRights International’s four Bertha Justice Fellows, who participated in and helped to facilitate the training, and take this opportunity to reflect on MLAI’s goals and the importance of regional legal networks in ensuring human rights protection in the Mekong region.

The Mekong Legal Advocacy Institute

The 2023 MLAI training program covered various human rights and environmental law topics. Participants heard from lecturers at Chiang Mai University Faculty of Law about integrating a gender analysis into environmental decision-making, the role of law in environmental movements, and the relationship between international, regional, and national environmental rights frameworks.

MLAI training participants showing their certificates.

Participants learned about the varying degrees to which environmental protection and community rights to access environmental information are enshrined in the laws of Mekong region countries and shared their experiences in utilizing these tools. During a session hosted by the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW), they discussed the potential for addressing the climate crisis and the resulting harms through the legal systems of Mekong countries. Participants also engaged in a detailed study of best practices for Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs). They applied EIA laws in each of their home countries to a hypothetical factual scenario to understand the possibilities and shortcomings in their national EIA procedures.

Amarin Saichan, an MLAI alumnus and attorney with EnLAW, an organization providing legal support on environmental justice issues, introduced the administrative law process and described the opportunities for using administrative law as a tool for environmental and human rights protection. In addition, Watchawalawee “Dream” Kunboomreung, a former Bertha Justice Fellow, presented two case studies – the Omkoi case and a PM 2.5 case – to highlight how advocates have used administrative litigation in Thai courts to protect human rights.

Throughout the program, participants shared their challenges and successes in advocating for community rights and environmental protection in their home countries, and the role that lawyers and legal advocates play in ensuring access to justice for affected communities.

Omkoi field trip

After learning about the Omkoi administrative law case pending in the Chiang Mai Administrative Court, MLAI participants had the opportunity to visit Kaboedin Village in the Omkoi district of Chiang Mai province. There, participants met with members of the Karen Indigenous Peoples group who have been fighting against a new coal mining project in their community. The community’s lawsuit challenges the neglected and flawed EIA and consultation processes for the proposed coal mine, both of which failed to comply with Thai law. So far, Omkoi residents have successfully obtained a preliminary injunction on the construction of the coal mine.

The MLAI participants traveled to the site of the proposed coal mine in Omkoi. They saw the rice fields, tomato farms, and waterways that the community depended on for farming, environmental resources, and their livelihoods, all of which would be decimated to make way for the coal mine. Participants heard directly from the people who will be impacted if the coal mining project is permitted to proceed.

Bertha Justice Fellows from Cambodia, Myanmar and the U.S. at Omkoi in northern Thailand.

Youth advocates in Omkoi shared their efforts to ensure that the Thai Administrative court orders the coal company to conduct a new EIA that is transparent and involves the meaningful participation of the affected community. They play a vital role in assisting community members and elders in fighting against the coal mine project since most do not speak or read Thai. These youth advocates combine the power of law and the power of people to challenge this unjust development project.

Participants learned much from the youth and community members about their advocacy movement. They saw that the indigenous peoples of Kaboedin Village were actively leading an advocacy movement, engaging in everything from document preparation to the court hearing.

After their meetings, participants spent the night in Omkoi, and had the chance to share Karen dishes with community members and visit the village where community members live.

Many participants reflected on the similarities between the issues facing the Omkoi community and the situations of remote villages in their home countries. They highlighted the worrying trend of a lack of community input into natural resource extraction and infrastructure projects throughout the Mekong region, and the minimal or absent consideration for the environment and livelihoods in EIAs.

Like in Omkoi, many companies conducting EIAs fail to consult potentially impacted communities surrounding proposed development projects despite legal requirements. Participants also tied violations of these environmental rights to other underlying human rights issues facing remote communities like Omkoi, such as an overall lack of access to education that companies exploit to avoid EIA obligations. 

Despite many challenges, the Omkoi community’s legal effort against the coal mine is promising  as the community has thus far succeeded in delaying the construction of the coal mine. MLAI participants praised the courage and conviction of the Omkoi youth advocates in standing up to corporate interests through their lawsuit, and they were eager to bring the lessons learned back to their home countries to inform their legal efforts.

Shannon (right), Bertha Fellow from the U.S., at the MLAI training.

U.S. Bertha Fellow Shannon Marcoux reflected, “It’s a welcome change to visit and be inspired by a community that has been successful in preventing harm from occurring proactively, as I so often visit communities who are trying to deal with the fallout of environmental destruction after corporate misconduct has already occurred.”

Visit to the administrative court in Chiang Mai

Participants were invited to visit the Chiang Mai Administrative Court to learn about the history and structure of the Thai administrative court system. Judge Jirasawat Surariddhidhamrong provided the participants with a detailed overview of the court and its successes since it was established in 2001. He also spoke at length about the court’s historic ruling in July 2023, finding that the former Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and the Thai National Environmental Board had neglected their duty to address PM 2.5 dust pollution in Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai administrative courts.

MLAI participants were able to ask Judge Surariddhidhamrong extensive questions about the purpose of the Court as a mechanism for individuals to hold Thai administrative agencies accountable when they fail to uphold their duties or cause harm. For many MLAI participants, the administrative court visit was a welcome first look into an example of a transparent court system focused on governmental accountability. They discussed whether or not there is a similar administrative court in their home countries and the benefits such a system would provide citizens in other countries in the Mekong region, and the importance of a robust rule of law mechanism to protect human and environmental rights.

“In Cambodia, we can learn from the successes and opportunities offered by the administrative court in Thailand as we look towards enacting the new Cambodian Environmental Code in 2024,” said Mekong Bertha Fellow Bun Rithy.

Rithy, Bertha Fellow from Cambodia, speaking at the training session.

Building solidarity among lawyers and legal advocates in the Mekong Region

For many participants, environmental work in their home countries is a challenge as civic spaces continue to be restricted, and their governments are limiting the abilities of lawyers and legal advocates to represent community environmental and human rights interests.

The MLAI training program highlights what is possible under challenging circumstances, including advocacy opportunities independent of domestic courts. This year’s training program included presentations on how to utilize operational grievance mechanisms for individual projects, companies, and financial institutions as a means to address project-level harms, an introduction to transnational litigation, and an overview of opportunities at the international and regional levels to advocate for human rights protection and remedies for human rights violations.

An MLAI participant speaking to EarthRights School students.

MLAI itself serves as a critical opportunity for regional cooperation. The program offers participants a chance to learn from the experiences of human rights advocates in other countries. By participating in the MLAI training program, lawyers and legal advocates build a network from countries across the Mekong region – creating connections that allow participants to support one another’s work and advocacy efforts long after MLAI has ended.

“I was very excited to meet other lawyers from Myanmar who are still trying to ensure that our environment and rights are protected even through this difficult political time in Myanmar,” shared Myanmar Bertha Fellow Yaw Heni.

The Human Rights 75 Initiative’s focus on business and human rights, climate change, and the environment

As we celebrate this year’s historic Human Rights Day, celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) highlighted monthly thematic spotlights. Appropriately, the MLAI training program focused on two of these spotlights – Business and Human Rights, and Climate Change and the Environment.

MLAI participants are on the frontlines of efforts in the Mekong region to ensure that companies respect human rights, that governments fulfill their obligations to protect against human rights abuse by businesses, and that victims of business-related abuse have access to an effective remedy. As the OHCHR highlighted, human rights advocacy must include protection for environmental human rights defenders, by holding those responsible for environmental harms accountable, mobilizing resources for rights-based environmental action, and empowering rights-holders, including indigenous peoples, women, youth,  and local communities to exercise their rights to participation and access to justice. The MLAI training program provides participants with the tools to turn these ambitions into realities.

“The 75th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides an opportunity to reemphasize the universality of human rights and honor the diversity of strengths and challenges for the many communities striving to address human rights worldwide. It was exciting to participate in MLAI and learn from daring and passionate young leaders from around the Mekong region working towards common goals in different contexts,” reflected U.S. Bertha Fellow Christopher Ewell.