Foreign Policy Blogs

Indonesian Haze Raising Regional Human Rights Questions

The haze affecting Indonesia, Malaysia, and SIngapore: June 19, 2013. Image:

The haze affecting Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore: June 19, 2013. Image:

As the slash-and-burn deforestation peat-burning agricultural practices of communities and companies in Southeast Asia continue, their peoples are suffering the worst air quality on record. Particularly hard hit are Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. The fires mainly burn on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, with the smoke travelling across the narrow Strait of Malacca to Malaysia and Singapore.

Malaysia has announced a state of emergency. Summer tourism in Singapore is projected to effectively cease. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia has formally apologized to the governments and peoples of Singapore and Malaysia for the extensive pollution emanating from Indonesia amidst escalating comments by officials of the respective governments. The capacity to combat these fires is extremely weak despite the enormous effect. Together, forest burning in Indonesia and Brazil account for approximately two-thirds of all emissions from land use, thus, ranking them below only China and the U.S. as the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters.

These highest measurements of toxic and particulate matter in the ambient air are clearly hazardous to health, but other problems are created as well. The fires are not easily controlled, and buildings, homes, and wildlife become victims. Schools have closed, delivery services have been suspended, and military training has been decreased. The livelihoods of remote or indigenous communities are particularly vulnerable. Shipping through the Strait of Malacca is extremely busy, as the region is home to some of the world’s most active maritime nations, including China, Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia. The smoke has become so dense that ships navigating the strait are forced to reduce speed, slowing down roughly one-quarter of international trade. The living and workplaces of the seafarers facilitating maritime commerce in this region are also subjected to the pollution. Air traffic has similarly been diverted around the hardest hit areas, and the memory of the $9 billion economic cost of the 1997-1998 haze crisis looms on the Southeast Asian economies.

With speculative finger-pointing assigning blame to multinational corporate palm oil plantations to farmers carelessly discarding cigarettes to a young Indonesian democracy without the capacity to police and combat these fires and their adverse effects, it is clear that the human rights of the citizens and residents of these affected countries are being violated stand poised to be violated.

These fires occur annually, sometimes naturally or accidentally. Due to the rich, peat forests typical to these islands, fires can smolder for months at depths greater than two feet underground. Preparedness is therefore necessary, but preventative enforcement of prohibitive laws, supplies of protective masks and fire-fighting capabilities are all lacking.

Further contributing to the problem is a lack of social responsibility on the part of Malaysian, Indonesian, and Singaporean companies that are involved in the setting of illegal fires. Greenpeace’s Indonesian forests campaign has called on the major palm oil parent companies to review their supply chains to ensure their raw materials are not sourced from illegal operations. The nascent vein of corporate social responsibility within international human rights law enjoys only an accepted framework, and is without the binding force of a treaty or custom, let alone as peremptory norms.

This does not mean human rights law has no response to such situations. The rights to health and an adequate standard of living have been construed to protect people from hazardous air pollution in situations where the implicated state was not engaging in or promoting the deleterious practices. International jurisprudence and opinion concerning the substantive content of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights (ICESCR) as well as the regional human rights bodies of Africa, the Americas, and Europe have all found that governmental inability or unwillingness to protect or remedy the situations of citizens suffering from various forms of pollution can be a human rights violation irrespective of causation.

Indonesia is the only Member State of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that has not ratified the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution of 2002. Malaysia and Singapore have not ratified the ICCPR or the ICESCR.  Unfortunately, there is little holding Indonesia, Malaysia, or Singapore to international legal standards in this matter, and as a result these three countries are largely left with bi- or multi-lateral negotiations to regulate transboundary pollution.

Indonesian national law and enforcement capability face an uphill battle remedying the environmental, health, and cultural effects of the disastrous 1996 “Mega Rice Project,” which began the official use of slash-and-burn practices and facilitation of illegal logging. These practices are now both illegal, but still persist. In some burned and logged forests, young trees cannot grow due to the continuing fires.

The long-term process of eliminating destructive agricultural practices through education and enforcement are occurring, but not nearly at the extent that they should be. Pilot projects such as the International Labour Organization’s “Green Livelihood Access for Central Kalimantan’s Inclusive Environmental Response to Climate Change” on the island of Borneo are addressing the long-term goals of replacing destructive agricultural practices with rehabilitative and sustainable agro-forestry. At the same time, Indonesia alone has not submitted to the regional system for regulating these environmental concerns in concert.

The short-term situation is more pressing as the human rights and health needs of approximately seventy-five million people still require immediate action and assistance ranging from dust masks, respirators, or water and food to large-scale relocation and housing operations. Accountability is needed as well, and seems almost nonexistent at current. Only one arrest has been made despite confirmed knowledge that a number of companies have “hotspots” in their land.



Marc Gorrie

Marc C. Gorrie holds a BA from Sarah Lawrence College, a JD from Indiana University Maurer School of Law – Bloomington, and an LLM in international human rights law with a specialization in international labor rights law from Lund University (Sweden). He is a port welfare worker and ship visitor for the Seamen's Church Institute in Ports Newark and Elizabeth, NJ, where he also collaborates on an educational program on the Maritime Labour Convention directed at port chaplains and welfare workers. He recently contributed to an EU project on legal education and law school curricula in the Gambia, and has held a research fellowship in legal ethics, lectured on federal Indian law and American legal ethics, and worked as a disability advocate.