Mekong legal advocates' network meets to discuss dams, corporate social responsibility, and other regional rule-of-law issues

Last weekend ERI hosted the second meeting of the Mekong Legal Network in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on September 16-18. The MLN is an independent group of experienced Mekong region legal professionals and civil society leaders from Burma, Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, Thailand, and Vietnam. MLN works to promote the rule of law in the Mekong and ASEAN regions, especially in relation to regional and cross-border development issues.

A panel of regional and international experts were invited to speak, including Professor Sriprapha Petcharamesree of the Institute for Human Rights and Peace Studies at Mahidol University and the Thai representative at the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), and Emeritus Professor Ben Boer, of the Australian Centre for Climate and Environmental Law, Sydney University Law School. The MLN members and participants were also joined by Lily La Torre Lopez, ERI's Senior Amazon Counsel, who shared her experiences of legal advocacy on behalf of indigenous peoples of the Amazon.

One of the most important and controversial Mekong region transboundary issues is whether to build hydropower dams on the mainstream of the Mekong River. In the pursuit of power, both electrical and political, energy authorities in the lower Mekong basin (below China) have proposed a series of twelve hydropower dams along the Mekong mainstream. As presenters showed at the meeting, however, these plans have not adequately taken into consideration the environmental and social impacts, such as fish populations and sedimentary flows which will be significantly and irreversibly affected by proposed dams. The livelihoods of millions who depend on fish and agriculture in the Mekong Basin are at stake.

The MLN discussed how to ensure current national, regional and international legal frameworks can be utilized to ensure that planning decisions adequately consider the impacts of the projects and allow for greater public participation. Members from Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Vietnam devised legal strategies within their countries during the meeting to help ensure the 1995 Mekong Agreement governing the lower Mekong Basin is implemented.

Another key issue in the Mekong region is the rise of investment in the Mekong by companies from the ASEAN region and China. The proposed mainstream Mekong dams for example will be financed, built and operated by companies from China, Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia. During the meeting, MLN representatives discussed the trends in corporate social responsibility (CSR) and human rights in the Mekong region and more widely in ASEAN with reference to the "Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United Nations 'Protect, Respect and Remedy' Framework" proposed by UN Special Representative John Ruggie and approved by the Human Rights Council last June. Companies from ASEAN and China tend to define CSR in narrow terms in relation to philanthropy, rather than acknowledging the need to integrate human rights and environmental considerations into day-to-day corporate operations. The MLN will conduct a research report into CSR and human rights in ASEAN to complement a CSR study to be conducted by AICHR.