Is China meeting its international environmental and human rights obligations on BRI?

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As government officials and leaders from across the globe arrive in Beijing ahead of the Second Belt and Road Forum, they should consider whether China is meeting local and international environmental obligations.

By Oliver Ward

On Thursday, April 25, 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping will deliver the keynote speech at the opening ceremony of the Second Belt and Road Forum (BRF) for International Cooperation in Beijing. Heads of state and other senior government officials from 37 governments will attend, including representatives from France, Germany, the UK, South Korea, Japan and Laos.

Bounnhang Vorachith, the Laotian president, will attend as part of his state visit to China.

Source: CTGN

The second forum represents an opportunity to ease mounting international concerns

Six years after the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), international attitudes towards the infrastructure plan have cooled. What was initially sold as a scheme to “enhance regional connectivity and embrace a brighter future”, has come under fire for running roughshod over local environmental laws, trapping developing governments in unfavourable loan agreements and failing to adequately protect local communities.

When Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad took office last year, he was quick to cancel two Chinese-financed BRI projects. He recently renegotiated the terms of the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) deal, securing more favourable terms and slashing the project’s cost by around a third.

The incident raised questions about the Chinese government’s predatory lending practices.

Many BRI projects breach local environmental laws

“Beijing claims it is committed to working with other countries to foster environment-friendly and sound development,” Yaqiu Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said, “but the practice so far has raised some serious concerns.”

The US$5.5 billion Jakarta-Bandung High Speed Rail project, for example, was once touted as a “landmark in the implementation of the One Belt One Road Initiative”. However, the project has operated in breach of many of Indonesia’s environmental protection laws.

Indonesian law requires the drafting of an environmental impact assessment (EIA) before any development project can begin. The creation of this document must take at least 75 days to give local communities the opportunity to raise any environmental concerns they may have, which must then be used in the drafting of the document.

For a project spanning the 142km of the Jakarta-Bandung High Speed Rail Project, to adequately gather information on public grievances and produce a robust and responsive EIA, the sponsors would need at least a year. The 300-page EIA was drafted and submitted in just seven days. It was approved in just one day.

The Jakarta-Bandung High Speed Rail Project is not an isolated case. Friends of the Earth found that BRI projects violated domestic environmental protection laws in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Afghanistan, India and Russia. This is likely just a fraction of the total legal violations taking place on BRI projects.

China is also not living up to its international human rights obligations

Under the UN’s framework principles of human rights and the environment, UN member states have an obligation to provide a healthy and sustainable environment which protect local communities and do not “interfere with the full enjoyment of human rights.”

This includes protecting citizens’ access to a healthy, safe environment, food and water, housing and culture.  

It is also not meeting its obligations regarding the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which dictates that businesses “should identify and assess any adverse human rights impacts with which they may be involved either through their own activities or as a result of their business relationship.” This should include “meaningful consultation with potentially affected groups and other relevant stakeholders.”

China is evidently not meeting these obligations. The Office of the Leading Group for the Belt and Road Initiative’s 2017 policy document did not make a single reference to human rights.

Beijing has sought to ease fears

Last year, at a seminar to mark BRI’s fifth anniversary, President Xi attempted to ease international concerns. He acknowledged that Beijing would fine-tune the initiative to better benefit local people. This included working with the Chinese foreign and commerce ministries to carry out more comprehensive risk assessments.

There have been some signs of progress. In March, the state-owned Bank of China announced it would review funding for a hydropower project in Sumatra. The project’s planned site is in a forest local conservationists believe is the last known habitat of the endangered Tapanuli orangutan.  

Photo Credit: Tim Laman/Wikimedia Commons

What can we expect from the second BRF?

At the second BRF on Thursday, expect President Xi to champion the evolution of BRI from an infrastructural initiative to a cultural, environmental, industrial and technological revolution.

He will likely point to isolated incidents like the Sumatran hydropower project as evidence of Beijing’s renewed commitment to environmental protections in an attempt to reset international perceptions and recover lost favour for the initiative.

Until Beijing does more than make nominal gestures to environmental protections and the human rights that go along with them, the international community should be wary. The initiatives continue to pose a threat to communities social and environmental well-being and their ability to defend their human rights.

If Beijing was truly committed to enhancing regional connectivity and embracing a “brighter future”, it would commit to carrying out comprehensive EIAs in line with local guidelines. It would also increase transparency and allow for public consultations with local communities to ensure projects hear and address community concerns.

The success of BRI hinges on the buy-in of individual participant nations. By making their participation conditional to China’s commitment to upholding the UN’s principles of human rights and the environment, recipients of BRI projects and funding can hold Beijing to account.