In the capital of tropical Laos, two dozen students who see their future in trade ties with neighbouring China spent their school year attending Mandarin classes in a no-frills, rented room. It’s the start of China’s first, and almost certainly not its last, university campus abroad.
“There are a lot of companies in Laos that are from China,” said 19-year-old Palamy Siphandone. She said she chose the Soochow University branch campus after hearing it would offer scholarships to students with high scores.
While there are continuing uncertainties as to whether a dam is going to be built on the mainstream of the Mekong at Xayaburi in Laos, Chinese authorities have just announced that the major dam at Nuozhadu on the upper reaches of the Mekong in Yunnan province has started generating electricity.
Nuozhadu is the fifth Chinese dam to be commissioned in Yunnan and it will ultimately have a generating capacity of 5500MW. For the moment only one of its nine generators is functioning, but all will be in operation in 2014. Like the already completed dam at Xiaowan (pictured), Nuozhadu has been built on an huge scale, with a dam wall rising 261m and a reservoir that will eventually cover 320sq km.
The official announcement in the China Daily is of more than passing interest, for two reasons. First, because it speaks of the newly operating dam as being one of seven Chinese dams on the upper section of the river lying within Chinese territory (it has previously been widely accepted that there would eventually be eight dams) and because it again repeats the claim that the Chinese cascade of dams will not effect downstream countries because only 13.5% of the water in the Mekong as a whole flows through China.
This claim has been discredited many times over, as I noted in my Lowy Paper, River at Risk.
Water from China is of great importance in sustaining dry season flow for the downstream countries, perhaps to a total of 40% of the river’s volume overall. So with each dam China builds there is the prospect of a greater diminishing of the flow, particularly as both Xiaowan and Nuozhadu will act as storage dams rather than having a ‘run of the river’ character.
There is no doubt that the commissioning of five dams in Yunnan province will have other long-term effects downstream, not least in relation to the amount of nutrient-rich sediment flowing down the river. There is also the likelihood that Cambodia’s Great Lake (Tonle Sap) will be reduced in area during the wet season, to the detriment of its current vital role as a source of much of Cambodia’s protein consumption through its vast bounty of fish.
China’s Mekong dams are so remote they receive little coverage in the Western media. Yet, like the more readily viewed sites for proposed dams in Laos and Cambodia, what is happening in China will eventually alter the productive capabilities of mainland Southeast Asia’s longest and most important river, a river vital to the sustenance of the 60 million people of the Lower Mekong Basin.
Advocacy Director, Health and Human Rights Division at Human Rights Watch.
Around the world, millions of people are locked up because of drug use. Some languish in prisons, some in compulsory drug detention centers. Few have access to effective, evidence-based treatment for drug dependency if they need it. The problem is not isolated in any one part of the world, but it is most pernicious when international donors and UN agencies promote and fund drug detention policies that systematically deny people the right to due process and healthcare, and ignore forced labor and psychological and physical abuse.
The relationship of the US government and Laos is an example.
The name Somsanga should ring alarm bells. Human Rights Watch conducted research in Laos in 2011 as part of a series of investigations of drug detention centers. It was not easy. Laos is largely a closed country, which permits little free speech or scrutiny of its human rights record.
What the government and its donors describe as a voluntary “health-oriented” center arbitrarily detains people who use drugs – including those who are not dependent – as well as street children, the homeless, the mentally ill, and other undesirable populations behind high walls and barbed wire.
Somsanga holds most people against their will. They are detained by police or local militia, or “volunteered” by local communist commune authorities or family members who have the mistaken belief that the center offers therapeutic treatment, or who buckle under social pressure to make their village “drug free.” Once inside, they cannot leave. Some attempt or commit suicide by ingesting glass, swallowing soap, or hanging. As Maesa, a child who spent six months in Somsanga, told Human Rights Watch: “Some people think that to die is better than staying there.”
Upgrading drug treatment and tackling crime are worthy goals. But the U.S. should not so blithely ignore the Laos government’s history of human rights violations at the Somsanga Center. It needs to insist on development of stronger legal protections to ensure that people cannot be subject to arbitrary detention and torture, and on community and evidence-based drug dependency treatment.
Detention in government centers in the name of treatment and rehabilitation is not unique to Laos. As Human Rights Watch and other research has shown, hundreds of thousands people identified as drug users are held in drug detention centers in China, Vietnam and Cambodia too.
Nor are such centers and what goes on inside their locked doors and high walls the only human rights abuses associated with drug enforcement funding. Thirty-two countries worldwide retain the death penalty for drug offenses. China, Iran and Vietnam are among those that utilize the death penalty the most, and they all get drug enforcement assistance from international donors and the United Nations.
Governments and drug control agencies regularly announce successes in fighting the drug trade, counted in kilos of drugs seized and numbers of people prosecuted. But we rarely hear about the fate of those arrested, including how they came to be involved in the drug trade. Those sentenced to death become a statistic in drug enforcement “successes,” while passing simultaneously into human rights statistics documenting ongoing abuse.
It is a clear example of the wide gap between drug control and respect for human rights.
In recent years, due to the efforts of Harm Reduction International, Human Rights Watch and our colleagues and partners, there have been increasing calls to close all drug detention centers and end the death penalty for drugs.
But there has been little practical progress toward ending these abuses. UN agencies and international donors continue to fund activities inside drug detention centers, and to support drug enforcement efforts despite the human rights consequences.
Scant attention has been paid to the UN and international donors’ human rights obligations and ethical responsibilities with respect to drug control efforts they support, or indeed to safeguards to prevent them from effectively facilitating human rights abuses with their support.
A new report called “Partners in Crime” makes an important contribution to addressing this gap. In providing specific examples of financial and material support provided by UN and international donors for drug control efforts, and human rights concerns raised by such support, the report compels readers to think critically about government efforts to meet their shared responsibility to address drug use and drug-related crime. It should serve as a catalyst to ensure that all governments – including donors – and international actors move quickly to develop and support drug control policies that truly respect, protect, and fulfill human rights.
Illegal timber seized on the Malaysian border of Indonesia in August 2005 (c) EIA
This week, as part of the Rio+20 summit in Brazil, over 200 judges, prosecutors, attorneys and legal experts gathered at the World Congress on Justice, Governance and Law for Environmental Sustainability. Issues discussed during the three-day meeting included new legal approaches to increase the effectiveness of global environmental agreements and combating transnational environmental crime.
While the focus on the role of law in environmental protection is laudable, a reality check is in order here. At the international and national levels, a plethora of laws relating to the environment already exist. The problem is that all too often they are not enforced. An honest appraisal of the reasons behind this failure is needed, but the main factors – lack of political will and corruption – make for uncomfortable discussions at international conferences.
Half a world away from Rio, the town of Mong Cai in northern Vietnam is a glaring example of unrestrained environmental crime in action. Lying on the border with the Chinese province of Guangxi, Mong Cai provides a gateway for a host of illicit products, notably wildlife, ivory, precious wood and electronic waste. Trade in all of these is controlled by international law – but apparently not in Mong Cai, where criminal gangs and corruption are rife.
Detailed analysis by an NGO found that 98 per cent of all cross-border traffic is illegal, moving across the river boundary via a host of “informal” routes. As a Financial Times journalist who visited the town reported: “In the past few years, Mong Cai has emerged as an international smuggling nexus, funnelling illegal goods from around the world to feed China’s soaring demand for everything from women to banned electronic waste products to tiger penis for use in traditional medicine. This illegal trade is extensive and well-organised and, remarkably, much of it takes place in plain sight.”
In the course of our work, EIA has come across many similar flagrant breaches of environmental laws. Although Laos bans the export of round logs, hundreds of thousands of cubic metres flow into neighbouring Vietnam every year via official checkpoints, orchestrated by companies with powerful political and military connections. In Indonesia, rules preventing the development of palm oil plantations on deep peatlands are often flouted. In fact, the Government’s own task force found that only 67 out of 352 oil palm plantation companies operating in the Indonesian province of Central Kalimantan possessed the required licences.
When it comes to land rights, wherever the rule of law is absent civil strife ensues. A report released this week by the campaigning group Global Witness found that over 700 people died between 2001 and 2011 “defending their human rights or the rights of others related to the environment, specifically land and forests”.
When environmental laws are properly enforced, the benefits are clear. For instance, at the start of the last decade illegal logging rates in Indonesia reached 80 per cent. The tide turned in 2005 when an unprecedented enforcement operation led to the illegal logging rate falling by half over the following few years. This intervention effectively prevented the loss of 15 million hectares of forests.
So let’s hope that when the judges and prosecutors return home from Rio they will start to push to close the gap between environmental laws on paper and enforcement in the real world.
VIENTIANE – A reception was held in Vientiane Monday night to commemorate the launching of CAMCE Investment (Lao) Company’s major commercial real estate project, Vientiane New World.
Laos Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith and CAMCE General Manager and Board Chairwoman Luo Yan were among some 200 officials, diplomats and local and foreign business people who attended the reception in downtown Vientiane.
CAMCE Investment (Lao) Company is a joint venture between the Chinese state-owned enterprise CAMC Engineering (CAMCE) and Lao Krittaphong Group.
Vientiane New World is a multi-phase project to develop a large strip alongside the Mekong riverbank in central Vientiane. Covering a space of 42 hectares, the first phase of the project includes fifty stylish villas which will be completed in October.
It will serve as accommodation for the 48 heads of state visiting the capital to attend the upcoming 9th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in November. After the ASEM, the villas will be put on the market.
“CAMCE want to try its best to make this project based on traditional Lao culture, but meeting international standards. We want to make the Lao people proud of our product, while making something that international guests can be more than satisfied with,” Luo Yan said.
In the two later phases, an International Cultural and Tourist Center and International Business Center will be built. The facilities will include shopping malls, cinemas, offices and hotels. The project is expected to be completed in six to eight years.
Tourism, hydropower and mining, in particular, are growing industries in Laos, one of Southeast Asia’s poorest and most underdeveloped nations. CAMCE and the Lao government hope that major construction projects can help promote development in Laos, as the country is aiming to shake off its Least Developed Nation status by 2020.