“My Goal is to Attract Young Minds to the Pursuit of Environmental Justice.”
An Interview with Syeda Rizwana Hasan, Chief Executive, Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association
Article first published online: 29 JAN 2013
© 2013 Policy Studies Organization. Published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Asian Politics & Policy
Volume 5, Issue 1, pages 125–133, January 2013
How to Cite
(2013), “My Goal is to Attract Young Minds to the Pursuit of Environmental Justice.”. Asian Politics & Policy, 5: 125–133. doi: 10.1111/aspp.12000
- Issue published online: 29 JAN 2013
- Article first published online: 29 JAN 2013
Syeda Rizwana Hasan joined the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA) and chose the path of environmental justice through judicial activism. Since taking the helm of BELA as Chief Executive in 1997, her advocacy has produced, among others, two major judicial victories in the contentious issues of ship breaking and filling up of wetlands.
Ship breaking involves the dismantling of decommissioned ships for scrap metal and steel. Laborers take ships apart using torches and tools, resulting in hazardous chemicals seeping into coastal waters and exposing laborers. In 2009, ship-breaking yards that failed to comply with environmental clearance requirements were ordered closed. In addition, all ships to be dismantled in Bangladesh were required to be detoxified before entry into ports.1
Earlier, in 2004, Ms. Hasan's team invoked the law against the filling up of wetlands by taking a land development company to court. Through landfills, wetlands are transformed into real estate. Apart from adversely affecting ecological balance and flood control, landfills also cause displacement of people. Companies can resort to circumventing legal action; thus, in BELA's experience, winning the case was a critical step in its efforts to advocate better enforcement of the law.2
The pursuit of these causes represents the bigger picture of advocacy, which is about going against what Ms. Hasan calls “the inequitable power structure and the culture of impunity,” thus restoring “hope and confidence in the judiciary” and empowering communities to insist on government accountability. Undaunted by the odds, Hasan maintains the view that trailblazing is necessary for future generations, and anybody can be a catalyst for change. The work of Syeda Rizwana Hasan is a powerful story of conviction, change, and hope.
Ms. Hasan met with APP Associate Editor Tina Clemente in August for a preliminary interview, days before she was to accept the 2012 Ramon Magsaysay Award in Manila for advocating social and ecological justice. Later, APP Senior Editor Eduardo Gonzalez joined the interview through email.
Fighting for causes, not cases
You grew up in a politically engaged family. Did that influence your decision to take the challenge of heading the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA) instead of pursuing a lucrative law career?
My family has surely influenced my development a lot. I have learned compassion, simplicity, and honesty from my family early on. I did not grow up in want or in luxury. Hence, I do not miss not having more than what I need. Growing up in a politically active family, I learned about the excitements and challenges of public life. I have always seen my family members sharing others' sufferings and taking on responsibility to redress others' grievances. For this reason, I am not uncomfortable in taking up challenges even if they may not give me any particular benefit. My work at BELA cannot be seen as a regular job. It is rather a passion. I do not fight cases, I fight for causes. My work excites me because it takes me to the people, it exposes me to a wide range of issues and realities, it allows me to be linked with the positive forces of society and never compels me to compromise my stance.
Hitting the ground running: environment and elections
One of your early triumphs came in 1994 when you successfully sued mayoral candidates in Dhaka for the violation of the Environment Act of 1860 during their campaigns. What was the core issue at that time?
When I joined BELA, I was tasked with compiling all the environment-related laws of the country for a BELA publication. I was doing the work at a time when the campaign for the election just began. While compiling the laws for the book, I realized that there are laws that attempt to regulate all the nuisances that accompany election campaigns. The blaring noise of microphones, unregulated processions that were blocking vehicular traffic for hours, defacing of all private and public buildings with posters could all be checked only if the existing laws were implemented. We approached the Election Commissioner (EC) to direct the police to enforce the law against the defiant candidates. The EC immediately got back and asked for the copies of laws from BELA. Subsequently, we filed perhaps the first environmental case of the country—BELA's first case too. We wanted enforcement action from the responsible government agencies to put a stop to such nuisances. All the major political parties joined the case as respondents and were required by the court to submit affidavits that they will refrain from violating the laws.
The court considered such actions by the candidates as against public interest. Was the court's ruling sustained? Are election campaigns today in Bangladesh much more environment-friendly?
Subsequent to the ruling, the EC developed its own code of conduct for the election of candidates. As a result, campaigning today is much more restrained. The EC now regulates processions, placing of posters and billboards, use of mikes, and so on.
Challenging the power structure and advancing environmental justice
As a lawyer, unsurprisingly, you have made the judiciary your forum for pursuing environmental causes. Typically, what seems to happen is that after winning your cases, the court instructs the government to issue guidelines that will prevent environmental abuses from ever occurring. Are you pleased with the way the environmental policy agenda is being upheld through judicial activism in Bangladesh?
I am certainly happy with the way the agenda of environmental justice is being advanced through the judiciary. We have managed to successfully challenge the inequitable power structure and the culture of impunity in Bangladesh. We have managed to revive hope and confidence in the judiciary. We have empowered people and communities by getting from the courts a progressive interpretation of their legal rights. Today, the public agencies are being held accountable. The increased demand for our legal services and the growing responsiveness of the government agencies indicate that the environmental policy agenda is getting a boost in the right direction.
Taking a behemoth to task: enforcing regulations for the ship-breaking industry
Let's focus on your role in ensuring enforceable regulations for the ship-breaking industry in Bangladesh, for which you were awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2009. This was a very complicated issue to handle. On the one hand, there was the usual argument that ship breaking makes economic sense since it employs thousands of people who would otherwise go hungry, that it supplies Bangladesh with almost all its steel, that in any case, most of the ship's contents are recycled and only a small amount is hazardous stuff. On the other hand, there were equally legitimate counterpoints—the hazardous waste, asbestos, arsenic, and mercury that are left behind to pollute the beaches are huge; child labor is illegally being utilized by unscrupulous ship-breaking moguls; about 50 are said to die and even more are injured in accidents each year. Can you narrate to us this protracted journey that you took, including your victories and frustrations?
I first learned about ship breaking through the newspapers, which reported on the deaths of laborers in the yards. I got involved in the issue when a few Greenpeace activists came to Bangladesh and explained to us the deadly hazards involved in the industry. We decided to do something that will keep the poisonous and obsolete ships out of our beaches.
There were likewise questions like the industrial countries looking the other way as their shipbuilders continue treating developing nations as graveyards for outdated ships.
We refuted the erroneous economic arguments and relied on international laws. With the help of our members in the NGO Platform on Ship Breaking, we showed the court the double standards of the developed countries in protecting their yards and poisoning ours.
What strategies helped in convincing the courts to issue the tight regulations against the powerful ship-breaking industry?
The media played a very helpful role. They reported on the repeated incidences of deaths in the so-called yards and the unbearable sufferings of the laborers. We showed a movie called the Iron Eaters that gave the court a clear picture of labor exploitation by the ship breakers in the name of providing employment.
You're on record as saying that you are not against ship demolition, provided the ships' toxic materials have been disposed of prior to landing in Bangladesh and that the workers are protected and compensated. Apparently there exist truly environmentally friendly options, such as the use of “green ship recycling,” which can reportedly recover up to 99% of the ship's materials and correctly process hazardous waste such as asbestos. Aren't the ship-breaking moguls interested in doing this in Bangladesh? Isn't this on the agenda of government?
Ship breaking continues in Bangladesh only because it is cheap to dismantle ships here. Again it is cheap because you don't have to comply with laws on labor safety and environmental protection. The yard owners are reluctant to comply with the safety measures as that will mean major compromise with profit. By sending the ships to the South Asian countries, the rich countries avoid dealing with their own wastes and spending much on waste disposal. They instead continue flouting international law and aid the industrialists and the government in institutionalizing what is wrong. I have no problem if the operation is carried out in dry docks certified as green, far away from the beaches and supervised by credible third parties. I have seen how the government diluted the orders of the court to protect the economic interests of a few ship breakers and how it was assisted by foreign countries in doing so. When the court orders are violated, one has to be skeptical about the high promises of an industry that has no track record of compliance or respect for human rights and the environment.
The courts can only make a ruling, and it is still the executive government which will enforce the regulations. But as you indicated, the Bangladeshi authorities are lukewarm enforcers, and that most often you have to go back to the courts to get injunctions against persistent ship breaking. Will it always be this way?
Bangladesh is a new democracy. Unfortunately, democracy hasn't marched forward as quickly as expected. The negative politics is adversely impacting law enforcement but that for sure can't continue for too long or forever. With people getting better organized and the politicians feeling the heat of public grudge, things are bound to change for the positive. We are working toward that goal.
Breadth of advocacy and civil society partnerships
You have successfully sued organizations involved in filling lakes to build real estate, improper use of polythene, hill cutting, deforestation, and shrimp farming. How do you manage to cover such a broad front? Do you get help from other cause-oriented groups?
As public interest lawyers, we have to do extensive research for many of our cases. We have to collect documents, interact with the local communities, and counter the so-called economic arguments. It is not a straightforward attack against the violators—we really need to prepare our cases in a way that the vested quarters manage no escape. For these reasons, our job becomes more demanding. In most of the cases, the groundwork for the BELA cases is done by our own team. We have a good team, overworked but thoroughly dedicated.
How much international support is BELA getting for its fight against illegal ship breaking, say from the EU or international watchdogs like Greenpeace and the Basel Action Network (BAN)?
BELA is getting strong support from the BAN. We are doing policy lobbying with the EU through the NGO Platform on Ship Breaking. The issue has fallen outside the priority areas of the Green Peace International although Green Peace Netherlands is working with us in the NGO Platform. They have been extremely helpful in explaining the complex scientific and technological issues of ship breaking. BAN has successfully led campaigns against the export of few ships outside the US.
Most ship-breaking yards are in developing countries, with the largest yards at Gadani in Pakistan, Alang in India, Aliağa in Turkey, and of course Chittagong in Bangladesh. Has BELA coordinated with similar groups in these nations for an internationally orchestrated fight against environment-unfriendly ship breaking? What were the results so far?
We have friends in India and Pakistan who are exploring the legal options of fighting the ship breakers in their countries. Most recently, the Indian Supreme Court has directed compliance with the Basel Convention. Pakistan is yet to seek any judicial intervention in the issue.
You suggested that the Yunus case5 might adversely affect the NGOs in Bangladesh. How will this impact on your own group's efforts?
The case of Dr. Mohammad Yunus is a classic instance of whimsical power exercise by the government. It shows how easy it is for the government to subject individuals and organizations to arbitrary processes and undue sanctions.
Trailblazing for future generations
As a relatively young practitioner, you still have many years ahead of you. What is your outlook for the future? What do you want to leave as your legacy in the environmental movement in Bangladesh?
I love the fact that people come to us for assistance in filing cases. The general trend is to avoid courts and the lawyers. I want people to place confidence in the strength of law as a tool to address injustice. We lawyers have the responsibility of popularizing the laws and activating the legal regime for the benefit of the common mass. We must break the belief that law is the might of the mightiest. I will continue advocating for the social responsibility of lawyers to promote environmental justice and attract as many young minds as possible to this pursuit. I also feel the necessity of strengthening local groups and mobilizing the victims of environmental injustice to build up resistance against anarchic ways. All of us should eventually become change agents.
The Basel Convention is an international treaty that was designed to reduce the movements of hazardous waste between nations, and specifically to prevent transfer of hazardous waste from developed to less developed countries.
The case arose from the practice of shrimp cultivation on arable and forest lands in coastal districts in Bangladesh through unauthorized water lifting. The Bangladesh High Court declared the practice illegal early this year.
Muhammad Yunus, who founded a pioneering microfinance institution, the Grameen Bank, has stood down as its managing director after a long dispute with Bangladesh's government. Yunus was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 jointly with the bank, which is credited with lifting millions of the world's poorest people out of poverty (Fariha Karim, The Guardian, May 13, 2011).
http://www.worldwatch.org/node/6084 (Bangladeshi Lawyer Fights Toxic Ship Breaking)