National Human Rights Institutions as Arenas of Transboundary Water Justice: Evaluating case studies from the Mekong River
By Carl Middleton
Presented at International Conference on National Human Rights Mechanisms in Southeast Asia: Challenges of Protection, Asia Center, Bangkok, Thailand, 13 - 14 July 2017
In Southeast Asia, major transboundary rivers such as the Mekong River are central to the food security, livelihoods and culture of millions of people. An increasingly extensive program of large hydropower dam construction is underway in Laos and Cambodia to meet domestic electricity demand and for power export to neighboring Thailand, Vietnam and China. How the concept of justice in water governance should be understood and applied to transboundary rivers is increasingly the subject of critical analysis, including with regard to human rights-based approaches.
This paper examines how claims for justice on the Mekong Rivers around large hydropower dams have been made and framed within “arenas of water justice” in Southeast Asia, with a particular focus on mechanisms for extra-territorial obligations (ETOs) and the role of national human rights institutions (NHRIs) in Thailand. The research draws upon in-depth interviews and participatory observation with community representatives, civil society groups, NHRIs, government agencies and the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) conducted during 2015 and 2016.
This paper discusses the roles, opportunities and challenges for public interest law and national/ regional human rights institutions to protect and promote human rights on transboundary rivers. It also discusses the strategies communities and civil society undertake in seeking to ensure their human rights are respected, including through national and regional human rights institutions. Overall, the paper argues that in recent years NHRIs have become important arenas of water justice in Southeast Asia for transboundary rivers, although also face limitations in particular regarding their authority to investigate cross-border cases and ultimately to hold domestic actors to account.
Cite this article as: Middleton, C. (2017) "National Human Rights Institutions as Arenas of Transboundary Water Justice: Evaluating case studies from the Mekong River" Paper presented at the International Conference on National Human Rights Mechanisms in Southeast Asia: Challenges of Protection, Asia Center, Bangkok, Thailand, 13 - 14 July 2017
 Center for Social Development Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University, Thailand. (Carl.Chulalongkorn@gmail.com)