Mekong Legal Network explores regional strategies for hydropower, human rights and business

The 3rd Mekong Legal Network (MLN) meeting was held from June 28th to July 1st in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The MLN is an independent network of public interest legal professionals from the six Mekong countries: China, Myanmar/Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The main themes of the meeting were hydropower development on the mainstream of the lower Mekong River, sustainable finance, business and human rights in ASEAN, and the challenges and opportunities for lawyers and campaigners working in Myanmar/Burma. In addition to MLN members, the meeting was attended by academics, experts, campaigners and civil society leaders from the Mekong region and beyond. EarthRights International’s role, in this meeting and in general, is to support the MLN and facilitate MLN meetings.

Dams on the lower mainstream Mekong River

A number of groups have been working to oppose or at least improve decision-making regarding dam construction along the Mekong River’s mainstream below China. Over the last two and a half years, the MLN has supplemented these campaigns with legal strategies at the national and regional levels. An MLN participant from Thailand outlined arguments for a potential lawsuit against the Thai energy authorities for breaching Thai Laws and the 1995 Mekong Agreement in approving the Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) for the Xayaburi Dam in Laos. The Xayaburi Dam is the first proposed lower Mekong River dam. 

In addition, friends from Cambodia and Vietnam outlined their government’s position on hydropower development, as they will bear the heaviest impacts from the proposed cascade of 11 dams below China.

Sustainable finance, business and human rights

Following the global financial and economic crisis, sustainable practices in the banking sector are a hot topic. International financial institutions like the World Bank are reducing financing of hydropower projects in the Mekong, in favor of banks from the region, so Thai and Vietnamese banks have a growing opportunity and responsibility to take the lead in implementing international best practices. The MLN meeting included presentations examining whether the Vietnamese banking sector is implementing these best practices, and exploring how the Thai banks involved in financing the Xayaburi dam can and should adopt international best practice in managing social and environmental risk, such as the International Finance Corporation’s Environmental and Social standards and the Equator Principles. 

Participants also discussed policy recommendations inside Thailand and in ASEAN. ASEAN is currently drafting the ASEAN Declaration on Human Rights (ADHR) and a policy framework for Corporate Social Responsibility and Human Rights, and these two frameworks were an important part of the MLN discussions. There have been very limited opportunities for public consultation on the AHRD, and a draft has not yet been publicly released, so MLN has filed a joint submission with EarthRights International and Sydney University to acknowledge the flawed consultation and, hopefully, influence the content of the AHRD.

EarthRights International has also been working on a Joint Thematic Study on Business and Human Rights in ASEAN with researchers from Mahidol University in Thailand and the Carr Center at the Harvard Kennedy School. The joint study analyzes human rights protection through six case studies from across ASEAN: three environmental and three on labour protections. This joint study aims to complement the analysis of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights’ baseline study into the promotion of business and human rights in ASEAN.

Emerging opportunities in Myanmar/Burma

The last topic the members have raised in the last day is the challenges and the opportunities for lawyers and campaigners working in Myanmar/Burma. Lawyers from inside and outside the country reflected on the changing political landscape, and the challenges and opportunities for reforming the legal system and investment practices there. MLN members from Cambodia in particular were able to share experiences and insights.