What happened to the Asean haze agreement? Experts say deal is toothless

Soo Wern Jun
A woman covers her face with a scarf in front of the Prime Minister’s Office, which is shrouded in haze, in Putrajaya September 17, 2019. — Reuters pic

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 20 ― The recurring haze season afflicting neighbours Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore will unlikely to abate if the countries rely solely on the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution (AATHP), several experts have noted.

The observers pointed to the limited effectiveness of the agreement, and predicted that the haze will remain as an annual affair if governments fail to tackle issues such as corruption and conflicts of interest.

“The AATHP is nothing more than a comfort document as it had manifestly failed miserably to prevent the persistence recurrence of transboundary haze,” Singapore Institute of International Affairs senior fellow Oh Ei Sun told Malay Mail.

“As long as slashing and burning is the most economically viable clearing method for plantation; that some (not all) countries are unwilling to tackle corruption and conflict of interest entailed in this saga, the haze will stay ― as a semi-annual occurrence even.”

Oh said the AATHP has failed to address the haze problem because it lacks powerful and pragmatic international enforcement mechanisms.

“When left to the national enforcement, some jurisdictions are evidently wanting in both the willingness and the capability to tackle the root causes of the transboundary haze problem.

“[The Agreement] has become totally irrelevant. Don't waste time,” he said.

The AATHP was inked by Asean members ― including Malaysia and Indonesia ― in 2002 following a severe haze season in 1997, in order to prevent future occurrences.

Despite that, the haze still returned almost annually, with the worst in 2015. This year’s haze has been exacerbated by dry weather and climate change, and looks to be as dangerous and as bad as then.

Echoing Oh’s sentiment, academic Alfajri of Universitas Abdurra, Pekanbaru in Riau, Indonesia, said the AATHP is weak because it attempts to stay in line with Asean’s informal principle of non-interference between its member countries.

“The Asean countries should try to rework the old mindset of sovereignty which cannot deal which such 21st century issues such as this non-traditional transboundary haze pollution or any other transboundary issues.

“In terms of obligation, there was no sanction that can be applied once a country breaches the Agreement,” said Alfajri.

He added that there is no possibility of a third party to be an arbiter when a haze-related dispute takes place between Asean members.

Currently, he said any disagreement under AATHP will be resolved merely through negotiation and consultation among each other.

“[There is] no chance to bring any breach to the international criminal court,” he said.   

The lecturer in the Department of International Relations said there are several related issues that need to be fixed first in order to fully address the haze problem.

“The haze is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many related issues that must be fixed seriously by the Indonesian authorities such as fire prevention measures and actions; weak law enforcement; forest and land use governance; good and clean governance and etc,” he said.

Meanwhile, an independent environmentalist who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the matter, also told the respective governments to “forget about discussions” via the AATHP.

“What is needed now is for the Asean countries to pool together a budget to deploy help on ground where relocation of those who are suffering the haze is needed immediately.

“If the AATHP actually made any difference, you won't be inhaling haze today. If you want an answer to whether the AATHP is effective, just look out the window,” he said.

Earlier this week, Putrajaya said it may enact a law to go after Malaysian companies with estates abroad that pollute the air and cause smog around South-east Asia.

Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad said his government would introduce legislation to rein in recalcitrant local companies that turn a blind eye to open burning on their land outside the country.

Malay Mail previously reported legal experts who called for new laws to act against culprits of the transboundary haze.

Enacting such a law would make Malaysia only the second country in South-east Asia to pass such a law, after Singapore’s Transboundary Haze Pollution Act.

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