Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Some good news amid the smog

Brave New World (The Star)
5 March 2014

Indonesia is ready to ratify the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, so member countries should now work together to resolve the problem once and for all.


YESTERDAY, with all the good intentions in the world, I planned to go for a run. When I say “run” what I mean is actually galloping in an ungainly fashion with a pained expression across my face; a movement and countenance that bring to mind a dying moose careering across a frozen Alaskan lake.
However, upon gazing outside, I came to the conclusion that any health benefit that I might gain from pushing my poor heart to its limits would be totally counteracted by the punishment my lungs would suffer from breathing in the dreaded haze.
Ah yes, the haze. It is back again. But at least there has been some good news. Twelve years after signing the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, it is reported that Indonesia is finally ready to ratify it thus making its provisions binding upon them. It appears that all this time, they were reluctant to ratify the treaty for fear that it would somehow challenge their sovereignty.
I have read this treaty many times (because it’s part of my job and not because I am a sad git who gets excited from reading dry international conventions) and it is an Asean treaty through and through. By this I mean the idea of state sovereignty is protected to the nth degree.
Its main objective is the monitoring and prevention of fires. There are also provisions for the co-operation between parties in the event of a fire.
But this can only be done if a state where the fires are requests it, and any sort of assistance is to be co-ordinated by the requesting state. Furthermore the provision for dispute settlement in the event of non-compliance is through negotiation and consultation. In other words, if a party does not play by the rules the others will invite them for tea and a chat.
It is all so friendly, with hardly any element of hard obligations, that I don’t know what the Indonesians are so worried about. In fact, in the past I have gone so far as to call the treaty toothless.
However, let us not be too cynical. It is indeed a positive step that Indonesia has decided to ratify this treaty. For one thing, full use of the co-operation measures should be taken. All Asean members should now go all out to work hand in hand with Indonesia to find ways to solve the problem once and for all.
There is a provision for a fund, for example, and this should be donated to generously by the parties. The money can then go towards scientific co-operation between the countries (also provided for in the treaty) to find economically viable alternatives to burning.
The information sharing provisions should also be utilised to the maximum in order for action by treaty parties to be taken at home.
By this I mean, if the Indonesians have information about foreign companies doing the burning, then such data can be used by the home countries of those companies to keep them in check.
That is, if there is the political will to do so.
Speaking of political will and naughty companies, aside from the actual treaty provisions, what member states can do is name and shame their own companies that break Indonesian law.
What we don’t want is some sort of cover up where perpetrators are hidden from the public view. If governments are not willing to do something about companies breaking the law, then perhaps the consumers with their spending power and voice can.
The treaty is a weak one; there is no doubt about that. For example, although all parties are duty bound to create laws that ban open burning practices that can cause transboundary haze, there are no sections in the law that punishes them for not implementing such laws.
However, it does provide a workable framework within which substantive co-operation towards a long term solution can be done. It is time that all Asean members, particular those most affected by this environmental blight, do just that.

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