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Hope for a Greener World 

Emeritus Prof Koh Kheng Lian did NUS and Singapore proud when it was announced that she had been awarded the internationally reputed Elizabeth Haub Prize for Environmental Law in 2012. The award ceremony, held a year later in last November, has Emeritus Prof Koh receiving the prize for her contributions to the development of the field in Singapore and the Asean region.

Established in 1973 in honour of Mrs Elizabeth Haub, a devoted supporter of environmental protection, the Prize is generally considered as the most prestigious and renowned international distinction that can be conferred upon an environmental lawyer.  An international jury consisting of six prominent environmental lawyers has annually awarded the prize to some of the world’s most leading environmental law specialists for their achievements in the field of international environmental law. 

Emeritus Prof Koh with Mrs Helga Haub, President of the Board of Trustees of the Elizabeth Haub Foundation for Environmental Policy and Law. Portrait of Mrs Elizabeth Haub is in the background.

Held from 14 to 16 November, 2013, in Murnau, Germany, the award ceremony was followed by the “3rd International Symposium of Laureates of the Elizabeth Haub Prizes”. Emeritus Prof Koh presented her paper titled “ASEAN Cultural Heritage as a Mechanism in Forging an ASEAN Identity for the Realization of an ASEAN Community 2015: An Impossible Dream?”.

Speaking at the ceremony, Emeritus Prof Koh said: “In my environmental law voyage, what was so exciting was that I started from zero and often without a compass! All I had at the beginning of my voyage and along the way was  inspiration, support and encouragement  from many Elizabeth Haub Laureates – to mention three in particular in alphabetical order - Parvez Hassan, Tommy Koh and Nick Robinson. My research on Singapore and ASEAN coincided with the period of their significant developments in environmental law.”

Driven by her passion for the environment, LawLink spoke to Emeritus Prof Koh to share with us her vision for environmental development.

Emeritus Prof Koh with laureates from previous years.

LawLink: What are your hopes for the environment in the near future?

Emeritus Prof Koh: If we look at how the environment today is being ravaged by human-induced climate change, pollution, destruction and degradation of ecosystems of flora and fauna, it would seem to be a contradiction to speak about hope for the environment. This is especially so because global cooperation does not seem to be in sight or is limping as witnessed by the climate change negotiations and other attempts to green the environment.

Yet, the numerous voices that we hear from the people reverberating throughout the world and clamouring for a better environmental future and for environmental justice, give us a reason to hope. Humanity is at a crossroads, and the UN Earth Charter 2000 tells us to have a shared vision of basic values to provide for an ethical foundation for the emerging world community. It calls for hope to affirm the following interdependent principles of respect for earth and life;  care  for the community of life with understanding, compassion, and love; build democratic societies that are just, participatory, sustainable, and peaceful; secure Earth's bounty and beauty for present and future generations.

There is a growing number around the world that abide by these principles, despite recalcitrants. There is also an ever growing movement of NGOs, CSOs and others, particularly among the people of many nations to demand for a quality of life that can endure for  present and future generations. Even as new and emerging environmental issues confront us, such as climate change in all its ferocity as witnessed by super typhoon Haiyan, the   Arctic vortex, heatwaves, droughts and with them , biodiversity loss, water and food security, zoonotic diseases, the onward march of the Anthropocene - innovations (smart cities, smart agriculture), new technology, new knowledge, new management (for example, India is testing out drones to monitor tigers in an attempt to counter the poaching of tigers) - all give hope to  bring about a  more liveable environment and to stamp the tide of or 'alleviate’ environmental disasters.

If humanity has no hope, it will die. The exponential growth of environmental activism and some activists even die for their cause, give  us reason to  hope as nothing is more powerful than the trajectory of people who are now  more than ever before experiencing the realities of typhoons, hurricanes, floods, snowstorms, droughts, land grabbing, climatic migration, food, and water security, with more to come. As much as the full impact is being felt, so does the hope to overcome them. Yes, there is reason to be hopeful for the environment – and for humanity and nature to live in harmony.

LawLink: What are some of the environmental developments that we can expect to see?

Emeritus Prof Koh: This question calls for looking into the crystal ball and predicting accurately. My vision is not very clear as to what the crystal ball tells us. That said, there are signs and emerging developments that give us some indications of what we can, or may expect.

I shall focus on some areas in ASEAN and the global context.

Myanmar has taken on the Chair of ASEAN for 2014. In the first of its ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ meetings as Chair, the theme is “Moving Forward in Unity towards a Peaceful and Prosperous Community”. ASEAN is developing an ASEAN Community by 2015 and beyond.  While ASEAN is very unlikely to fully establish an ASEAN Community by this date, the process will be accelerated particularly through some of the “soft power” measures - going “local” and   the “people-to-people” approach. Such measures include promoting ASEAN cultural heritage, sports activities, and greater connectivity in communication - all these can work towards an ASEAN identity in developing an ‘ASEAN Community’.

In transnational crimes, it can be envisaged that in illegal trade in endangered species (under CITES) , ASEAN will play a more critical role in cross-border cooperation  in  criminal law, together with other areas of transnational crimes such as drug trafficking. ASEAN is likely to adopt the “whole–of-the–world” approach, by invoking the “non-traditional-security” approach under “ASEAN Pillar I” for enhanced cooperation to combat such transnational crimes.

In disaster management, ASEAN can also be expected to be more effective and to adopt a similar “whole-of-the-world” approach, and also under the tripartite Memorandum of Cooperation (MoC) between the ASEAN Secretariat on the one hand, and the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNDISDR) and the World Bank on the other.

On the global front, reluctant as most industrialised countries are of mainstreaming climatic migration, into the climate change negotiations, and at other platforms this issue cannot be ignored indefinitely. The 20th UNFCCC COP meeting to be held in Paris 2015 will see more cooperation from the South –  South to further negotiate on “loss and damage” issue as a separate issue (at least in some areas) from the adaptation framework, now embodied in the Warsaw international mechanism for loss and damage associated with climate change impacts. The outcome of the Paris COP meeting in 2015 may see a multi- level climate change governance system emerging, as it is not expected that the North and South will agree on a new Kyoto Protocol.

The discourse on emerging environmental notions such as eco-cide, human security, resilience, environmental justice, to mention a few will continue to be further developed by environmental experts and will impact on some current traditional notions and help operationalise environmental frameworks.  We are witnessing a wide range of topics in research from scientists, environmental legal experts and those from different disciplines. This exponential growth in environmental research is expected to continue. As knowledge is built, there may be a closing of gap between the current conflict of values between the North and South and this may lead to shared values and enhanced international environmental cooperation.

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