Rule of Law to Support the Post-2015 Development Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals

Delivered at the Asia-Pacific Roundtable: Environmental Rule of Law for Sustainable Development in Support of the Post-2015 Development Agenda in Bangkok, Thailand.

Honorable Tun Arifin Zakaria, Chief Justice of Malaysia

Mr. Achim Steiner, Executive Director, UNEP

Distinguished delegates,


The rule of law is both an enabler and facilitator of development. As such, many of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) will hinge on improving the rule of law, especially in the area of international and national environmental law.

For sound environmental protection and stewardship, Asia and the Pacific will derive high payoffs by strengthening the rule of law, regulations and institutional frameworks, which together with a strong judicial system will support effective enforcement for just and sustainable development outcomes.

In line with the Rio+20 outcome document, The Future We Want , and the Rio+20 Statement on Justice, Governance and Law for Environmental Sustainability, this Roundtable provides us with an opportunity to explore the linkages between the rule of law and good governance in the management and execution of environmental law to reinforce the SDGs.

My key messages today are that:

  1. The rule of law is indispensable for achievement of the SDGs;
  2. Agreement is needed on key principles of the rule of law;
  3. There is a need for a review of the state of national and regional environmental law in Asia and the Pacific; and
  4. Partnerships are critical for strengthening institutions and knowledge-sharing to improve regional and global frameworks for environmental law.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Rule of Law, Environmental Law & Achievement of the SDGs

Achievement of the 17 specific SDGs currently proposed for adoption by the international community, depends on the strong rule of law and the application of enhanced environmental law. Goals designed to uplift people and to ensure provision of basic services cannot be realized without adequate safeguards and prudent management of our natural resources and environmental capital. There are a number of applicable goals to illustrate this:

  • Goal 3 on healthy lives and well-being for all, includes a target to reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water and soil pollution and contamination.
  • Goal 6 on water and sanitation seeks to improve water quality by reducing dumping of hazardous chemicals.
  • Goal 11 deals with sustainability of cities and identifies the need to improve air quality and waste management.
  • Goal 14 on oceans and Goal 15 on ecosystems deal with targets to protect marine ecosystems and fisheries, halt the loss of biodiversity and end wildlife trafficking.
  • Goal 16 aims to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, which requires promotion of the rule of law at national and international levels, and ensuring equal access to justice for all.

In addition to national action, these goals require transboundary cooperation and an effective enforcement regime.

So how can we optimize the development of the rule of law to respond to the interlinkages presented by the SDGs?

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Key Principles of Environmental Law

The key principles of environmental law which will shape its application and further development are:

  • Intergenerational equity;
  • Transboundary responsibility;
  • Public participation;
  • Good governance with supporting mechanisms of accountability and transparency;
  • Prevention, the precautionary principle and the polluter pays principle ; and
  • Strong political will and support.

These principles of environmental law will help to develop robust national and international environmental legal frameworks. We know that the application of these principles can be hampered by vested interests, a focus on personal or short-term gains, lack of societal concern, knowledge gaps, uncertainties and regional coordination challenges.

We must draw on science to understand the complexity of natural systems and effectively manage competing interests. Science, technology and innovation (STI) can also provide us with technological solutions that allow environmental protection and economic development to co-exist in harmony. Advanced technologies for clean energy generation, waste management and sustainable agriculture, are just a few examples of how tradeoffs can be managed. Clear and transparent national and international environmental frameworks can provide the right market signals and incentivize the development and transfer of these technologies.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Environmental Law in the Asia-Pacific Region

The Asia-Pacific region is dealing with many contemporary environmental challenges. Four overarching trends have been major contributors to environmental degradation: lack of quality of economic growth with consequent increases in CO2 emissions; increased urbanization; increased consumption and, lastly population growth. Attendant environmental impacts are not limited in scale to any one country. Smoke from forest fires crosses borders and creates health hazards for neighboring countries. Development of hydropower resources has transboundary impacts on downstream fisheries and agriculture. Biodiversity loss continues, with the South East Asia subregion alone projected to lose up to 42 percent of its biodiversity by 2100. Cross border implications necessitate the development of improved international environmental legal frameworks and adherence to the principles of the rule of law.

Strong judiciaries, with the right expertise, are core to the rule of law, constitutionalism and enforcement of environmental law. Without an effective judiciary, we will end up with constitutions without constitutionalism, which in turn will directly undermine the rule of law.

Stronger environmental law, underpinned by the rule of law, can ensure that markets function efficiently to deliver environmentally-sound outcomes, and that investment is allocated optimally, without undermining natural and social capital.

More emphasis also needs to be placed on addressing violations pertaining to illicit trade and smuggling of chemicals, hazardous waste, logging of timber, wildlife exploitation, depleting natural resources, ozone depleting substances, illegal and unregulated fishing, and the dumping of toxic waste. Greater visibility and reach of the rule of law pertaining to environmental law is needed to curtail these activities and minimize negative environmental impacts.

There are many good examples of Asia-Pacific initiatives working to foster regional cooperation on environmental law and its enforcement. The Mekong River Commission promotes the Mekong River’s effective coordination of water resource use and environmental management. The ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution lays ground-rules for ten countries in South-East Asia to reduce haze pollution. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a global treaty protecting endangered plants and animals from exploitation, has been ratified by almost the entire Asia-Pacific region. Lastly, the Asian Environmental Compliance and Enforcement Network is a group of 13 member States in Asia, which promotes improved compliance by its members with environmental legal requirements and good practices among the regional enforcement agencies.

The First Asia and Pacific International Colloquium on Environmental Rule of Law, convened by UNEP in Malaysia in December 2013, promulgated the Putrajaya Statement on Environmental Rule of Law, which provides a useful starting point for regional dialogue. The constituent elements of environmental rule of law were outlined as adequate and implementable laws, access to justice and information, public participation, accountability, transparency, liability for environmental damage, fair and just enforcement, and human rights.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Role of ESCAP

Strengthening the rule of law and harmonization of rules and legislation is a prerequisite for ESCAP’s intergovernmental platforms to promote regional cooperation in the implementation of sustainable development. Rule of law plays a significant role in promoting transport laws, regulations and related services; trade agreements and trade facilitation; and improvement of civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS). There is much to be learned, shared and scaled up in terms of the implementation and enforcement of environmental law, and more work is needed in strengthening the institutions that support these processes, such as courts, tribunals and enforcement agencies

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,


In conclusion, loss of environmental capital not only impacts our environmental sustainability, but also impacts the social and economic dimensions of sustainable development. Recognizing this, strengthening the rule of law, good governance and environmental law is critical in achieving the SDGs in our region.

Closer regional cooperation in environmental law will be critical for effective action, and ESCAP will be supporting our member States to strengthen their development and enforcement of environmental law.

We welcome the partnership and collaboration of UNEP and other global institutions in this effort.

Our shared obligation to the next generation is to leave them with clean air, pure water, and healthy ecosystems – which in turn drive the prosperous and inclusive economies we want.

I thank you.