Haze Pollution, a Human Rights Violation?

Civil society groups file landmark complaint to Malaysian Human Rights Commission for public inquiry into haze pollution as a human rights violation

For illustration purposes (image by Ishan)

Ahead of the International Human Rights Day on the 10th of December, a broad alliance of civil society organisations filed a pioneering complaint at the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM) as a proactive counter measure to address the chronic and persistent haze pollution.

As the first-ever complaint filed in Malaysia to combine environmental issues with human rights, the CERAH Anti-Haze Action coalition is advocating for a public inquiry into the gaps in the governance of domestic and transboundary haze pollution with the aspired aim of getting systemic solutions for overcoming haze pollution and protecting our right to clean air.

In addition to reinforcing the rights of haze-impacted communities, the complaint also recommends the strengthening of domestic environmental laws and regulations, as well as strengthening human rights practices within businesses based on the United Nations’ framework [1].

Recommendations we seek (based on the complaint):

  • Strengthening the recognition of environmental rights in Malaysia
  • Strengthening Malaysia’s air quality governance
  • Strengthening the governance of transboundary haze pollution
  • Strengthening Business and Human Rights in Malaysia

CERAH chairperson Dennis Chan said, “What happens to people who continue to suffer from the after-effects for years to come? The haze in itself is not a nigh annual, mass smog event but an aggregate symptom of the broader issue of unchecked protected peatland burning, the continued encroachment into reserved forest areas compounded and driven by still rampant fossil fuel use in developing countries. The lodging of this complaint to SUHAKAM is an urgent, overdue, shared response to  a  lack  of  clear,  meaningful  solutions  or  legal  pathways  for  common  citizens  to  end man-made  atmospheric  pollution  affecting  the  South  East  Asian  region  and  countless millions of lives.”

“The ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution lacks enforcement mechanisms for dispute-resolution. It mainly promotes cooperation among the member states and expects each country to undertake efforts at preventing forest fires. Therefore, stronger national and regional legal instruments and pathways are clearly needed to protect the rights of Malaysians affected by the haze,” said Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) President Meenakshi Raman.

According to Greenpeace Malaysia campaigner Heng Kiah Chun, “Clean air is a basic human right for all but Malaysians lack access to the information and basic justice required to enforce that right. So we have filed a complaint with our independent and impartial Human Rights Commission, asking them to recommend ways to empower haze-impacted individuals and communities to protect themselves and their families.”

“Deforestation, peatland destruction, and transboundary haze pollution have been happening in Sarawak for years. This is also why it is important that haze pollution and forest protection should be part of the main agenda in this year’s Sarawak state election.”

“International law says polluters must pay for the fatal impacts of haze, but this requires transparency and accountability at every level. Health experts say clean air and good ventilation are crucial to saving the hundreds of thousands of lives threatened by haze pollution, just as clean air is essential to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.”

“We hope that the upcoming haze related human rights recommendations will at least be of assistance to those affected post-haze and hold those responsible accountable for compensation and to avoid haze-induced air pollution in the future. The unknown level of suffering to humans and wildlife has been going on for a long time due to man-made haze. Other than finger pointing, the governments and authorities have not made much progress to provide a clear solution to the matter,” said Pertubuhan Pelindung Alam Malaysia (PEKA) president Puan Sri Sharifah Sabrina Bt Syed Akil.

Meanwhile, Klima Action Malaysia (KAMY) representative Aroe Ajoeni said, “I hope this initiative will be a start to effectively campaign against the transboundary haze crisis. This will be a relief to the people suffering in Malaysia and the locals who have dealt with this toxic and deadly haze for decades.”

Additional facts and info:

  • According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution is now one of the biggest environmental threats to human life, leading to seven million premature deaths a year [2].
  • In a study by the European Respiratory review, air pollution may be linked to an increase in COVID-19 severity and lethality through its impact on chronic diseases, such as cardiopulmonary diseases and diabetes [3].
  • From 2010 to 2018 (excluding 2015), Malaysia’s annual average PM10 concentration has been higher than the WHO’s standard of 20 µg/m3 [4].
  • Haze led to a rapid rise in asthma and conjunctivitis cases nationwide, said the Malaysian Health Ministry in 2019 [5].
  • During the 2019 haze, nearly 2,500 schools were closed across Malaysia, affecting at least 1.7 million pupils [6].

[1]The United Nations ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ Framework, in the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights – https://www.ohchr.org/documents/publications/guidingprinciplesbusinesshr_en.pdf  [2]https://www.dw.com/en/who-air-pollution-causes-7-million-premature-deaths-a-year/a 59264198
[3]European Respiratory review on ‘The impact of outdoor air pollution on COVID-19: a review of evidence from in vitro, animal, and human studies.’ https://err.ersjournals.com/content/30/159/200242
[4]UNICEF Climate Change 2021 report https://www.unicef.org/malaysia/media/2201/file/Climate_Change_2021_report%3A_Summary_%28Eng%29.pdf