Opening Remarks by Mr. Napoleon Navarro, Deputy Country Director UNDP China at the 2011 Environmental Legal Service Briefing & Press Releases

10 Feb 2012

10th Feburary 2012   Beijing Guoyi Hotel

Distinguished guests and friends,

It is my pleasure to be able to attend this 2011 Environmental Legal Service Briefing & Press Release. On behalf of UNDP and the UN Democracy Fund, may I begin by thanking all of the environmental public interest lawyers, judges, legislators, officials, academics and friends from the media joining us here today. Your support and enthusiasm towards the work of the United Nations Develoment Programme remains crucial to our ability to succeed in achieving the Millenium Development Goals, and in this particular case, promoting environmental rights here in China. I would also like to thank the All-China Enivronmental Federation and CICETE for their achievements in promoting environmental justice and governance.

Over the past thirty years, environmental degradation has perhaps been one of the most unfortunate bi-products of China’s tremendous economic growth. Growing concern over the damage that is being caused to the environment has become a key consideration within central and local government planning. However, despite efforts to improve this situation, one of the biggest challenges facing the government is a lack of awareness towards environmental rights. More and more, we are seeing that people are looking for ways to stand up for their right to a clean and safe environment. Still, many people are simply not clear about what their rights are.

Of course there are obvious benefits from having an informed society hold environmental offenders to account. In China, however, there are other reasons why public awareness towards environmental rights is so vital. Laws on liability and compensation for environmental damages remain unclear and are often the cause of confusion, and the high cost of filing cases also means that pursuing legal action is out of reach for most people. Under such circumstances, civil society organisations would normally be able to represent communities through public interest litigation, but at present these organisations are not yet legally recognised to do so in China.

To assist the government in its efforts to promote environmental rights awareness, UNDP has been working with the All-China Environment Federation to address this challenge. Under a two year project entitled “Protecting the Environmental Rights and Justice for the Public”, this project has already taken innovative approaches to promoting public access to environmental information. Legal aid has been provided to victims of environmental damages, environmental tribunals have been established, and the foundations have been laid for a public interest litigation system, including legislative changes to allow civil society organisations to act on behalf of the interests of the public. In doing so, we have been fortunate enough to be able to draw on a wide range of expertise and support from civil society organisations, lawyers, judges, legislators, policy makers, and the general public. As a result, we are able to cerebrate unprecedented achievements in environmental public interest litigation.

In just a few short minutes we will be privileged to hear more about how China’s environmental governance system has been strengthened. First, however, I would like to provide a few short insights on behalf of UNDP. At the end of 2011, the All-China Environment Federation filed a lawsuit against the Xiuwen Environmental Protection Bureau for failing to release information concerning the Guizhou Haoyiduo Dietary Company. The case was heard at the Guiyang Qingzhen Environmental Tribunal, who ruled in favour of the ACEF and ordered the Bureau to release the information within 10 days. Crucially, this breakthrough has enabled a civil society organisation to protect citizens' rights to obtain information about their environment for the very first time.

Another example of progress has emerged from the Bohai Bay oil spill. The environmental damage caused by this disaster has affected many seafood farmers in the area, and left livelihood opportunities at risk. Together with UNDP support, the ACEF has been supporting 107 seafood trawlers in their case against ConocoPhillips for damages relating to the oil spill. So far 3.16 million yuan has been saved in court fees and judicial authentication that would have otherwise inhibited their cause.

These are just two examples of how UNDP and the ACEF are making a real difference in people's lives. Cases like this are also playing an increasingly important role in helping the ACEF build its litigation skills and draw attention to the crucial role that civil society organisations can play in protecting environmental rights. To this end we are working to raise public awareness, and advocate for both a stronger environmental public interest litigation system and legislative changes that would allow more civil society organisations to qualify as plaintiffs. A series of publicity and education activities have already been initiated and the ACEF is currently holding seminars for legislators from the National People's Congress, and lawyers, judges, and officials from the Legal Affairs Department of the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

As we look to a brighter, greener China, UNDP remains committed to supporting the realisation of national development ambitions and the goals set out in the 12th Five Year Plan. As it does so, an important part of our work together will be to help to protect the environment upon which China’s success has been achieved. The key to this will be sustainability, and that will require the consensus of all of China’s 1.3 billion people. Let us therefore celebrate our successes, but let us make sure that we also use them as motivators in our pursuit of the future we all want to see.

Thank You!