‘Low point’ in World Heritage Committee history as politics ‘trampled’ on human rights of the Karen people | Great Barrier Reef

Along Thailand’s border with Myanmar, in rich forests filled with rare plants and animals, the indigenous Karen people are fighting for the right to live on their traditional lands.

Last month, the UN human rights agency said the Karens continued to be forcibly evicted from the forests of Kaeng Krachan. Thailand’s request to inscribe the forests as a World Heritage site must be rejected, the agency said.

Unesco has come to a similar conclusion. Yet at a meeting of the World Heritage Committee, the 21 member countries gave forests the coveted global status.

Much like the decision not to include the Great Barrier Reef on an “endangered” World Heritage list, Kaeng Krachan’s listing is part of what environmentalists see as a worrying politicization of World Heritage decisions.

The UN had said that the Karen people were threatened and forcibly evicted from their traditional lands, and that their homes in Kaeng Krachan were set on fire. What are believed to be the remains of Karen land rights defender, Pholachi “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, were found in an oil barrel at a dam in the forest in 2019.

Villagers bathe on the Thai side of the Salween River in Mae Hong Son province. The indigenous Karen people are fighting to stay on their land. Photograph: Lillian Suwanrumpha / AFP / Getty Images
Karen migrants cycling in Thailand
Karen migrants living in Thailand congregate in the town of Mae Sam Laep on the Thai side of the Salween River. Their traditional land, the forests of Kaeng Krachan, has been declared a World Heritage Site. Photograph: Lillian Suwanrumpha / AFP / Getty Images

Karen people of Bang Kloi village gathered in front of the Bangkok Ministry of the Environment in the hours leading up to the World Heritage decision, brushing a ministry nameplate with red paint.

Moments later, Chrissy Grant, Australian President of the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on World Heritage, told the committee that the decision was “One of the lowest points in the history of [world heritage] convention “ and he had “trampled” on the dignity and human rights of the Karen.

“This is the result of highly politicized lobbying and haggling based on the economic interests of committee members,” she said.

Protesters hold 'Save Bangkloi' banner in front of line of police at land rights protest organized by Karen members
Protesters and police at a land rights protest organized by members of the Karen indigenous community in Bangkok. Photograph: Jack Taylor / AFP / Getty Images

Australia remained silent for the Kaeng Krachan decision. Only Norway spoke up in defense of the UN advice, later telling Guardian Australia that the listing went against the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and other agreements.

But that was just one of many occasions when committee members, including Australia, went against Unesco’s advice.

The most striking example was the rejection of the recommendation that the world’s largest coral reef system, the Great Barrier Reef, should be placed on its “endangered” list – a call that sparked an effort by total international lobbying from Australia which delayed the decision until at least 2022.

Australia’s “unholy pact”

United Nations advisers to Unesco told Guardian Australia there were growing concerns that the committee was moving away from advice designed to conserve the world’s most special places.

Three years ago, when Australia was elected to the World Heritage Committee, it made a passionate commitment that it would not support the inscription of sites on the List if the advice went against it.

The head of the Australian delegation, Stephen Oxley, at the 2018 meeting in Bahrain on an “insidious problem” which “undermines the credibility” of the World Heritage convention.

There was a growing tendency, he said, for the committee to ignore “sound technical advice” and the committee “must do better.” Australia would be a “defender of the technical integrity of the committee”.

“And I will be clear now that we will not support the inscription of places on the World Heritage List where the advice before us is that they should not be inscribed,” Oxley said.

But Australia reneged on that promise more than once at last month’s meeting.

Imogen Zethoven, World Heritage consultant to the Australian Marine Conservation Society, said the reef was one of seven sites Unesco had recommended ahead of the meeting to be placed on the “endangered list”. Australia opposed Unesco’s opinion on the seven. None of the sites, including the reef, were on the list.

Zethoven says Australia reneged on its promise and the Morrison government made an “unholy pact” to keep the reef from being listed.

After Unesco recommended that the committee put the reef on its “endangered” list, Australia responded with a lobbying offensive that put Environment Minister Sussan Ley on a diplomatic jet for the Europe and sent ambassadors based in Canberra for a day of snorkeling off Port Douglas.

Members of the committee Bahrain, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Ethiopia, Hungary, Mali, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia and Spain tabled an amendment supporting Australia.

During the meeting, Thailand said it also supported Australia’s calls for the reef not to be on the endangered species list.

At the same time, Australia agreed to block a recommendation “in danger” for the site of Hungary in Budapest and to include an ancient rock art site in Saudi Arabia, again going against the advice of Unesco.

Rock carving at Abar Humma in Najran, Saudi Arabia
Australia voted for the inscription of an ancient rock art site, Abar Humma in Najran in Saudi Arabia, against the advice of Unesco. Photograph: Eric Lafforgue / Gamma-Rapho / Getty Images
Rock carving at Abar Humma in Najran, Saudi Arabia

Unesco also said more work needed to be done in front of a site in the Spanish capital of Madrid – the Paseo del Prado and the Buen Retiro – should be considered for World Heritage status. Australia was among 12 committee members who crafted an amendment to ignore Unesco advice and give the site immediate World Heritage status.

The Spanish Ambassador to Unesco, Andrés Perelló, admitted in the Spanish media that he had reached an agreement with Australia in the days leading up to the meeting.

Spain would support blocking Unesco’s advice on the reef, Perelló said, and Australia would support listing Madrid’s 18th-century avenue.

Retiro park lake in Parque del Buen Retiro with monument to King Alonso XII on summer sunny day in Madrid
The Spanish Ambassador to Unesco, Andrés Perelló, admitted to having reached an agreement with Australia a few days before the committee meeting. The Paseo del Prado and the Buen Retiro in Spain have been classified as World Heritage, against the advice of Unesco. Photograph: Lingxiao Xie / Getty Images

Politics above conservation

Stefan Disko, World Heritage consultant for the Global Human Rights Group, the International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs, said Australia was aware of human rights issues in Kaeng Krachan because they raised concerns at a committee meeting two years ago.

“Nothing has changed, but Australia has remained completely silent,” he said. “It’s appalling. They turned a blind eye to the worst human rights violations.

“They should have spoken. One would expect a country like Australia to stand up for human rights – not engage in this appalling behavior. “

He said the apparent conclusion of agreements by Australia and other countries in the committee “completely undermines the credibility of the convention.”

Two years ago, WWF International published a report indicating that the political interests of committee members were increasingly placed above conservation.

Aslihan Tumer, Global Campaigns Manager at WWF International, says, “Rather than politicizing, we urge parties to invest valuable time and effort to ensure these sites are well maintained and managed.

Peter Shadie is Senior Adviser on World Heritage at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which is the group that advises Unesco on its natural sites, such as the Great Barrier Reef and Kaeng Krachan.

“IUCN and many others have expressed concerns about the growing gap between the decisions of the World Heritage Committee and the technical advice and recommendations issued by the advisory bodies,” he said.

On Thursday, Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson asked the Australian government if it had made any deals with other committee members. Liberal Senator Jane Hume replied that discussions among committee members would remain private.

Guardian Australia has asked the office of Environment Minister Sussan Ley whether any agreements have been made to ensure support for its position on the reef.

In a statement, a spokesperson said the government was “committed to upholding a rules-based order and, as a member of the World Heritage committee, Australia respects a technical approach to the work of the committee.”

“Australia engaged constructively with committee members and based its decisions on the merits of each property and on information from advisory bodies and States Parties.

The spokesperson said Australia was not one of the 10 countries that proposed the amendment to list the Kaeng Krachan site. He said the advisory bodies and committee consensus had recognized the site as having outstanding universal value, and therefore “Australia did not oppose the listing”.

“Ultimately, it is the World Heritage Committee that has the final say on the inclusion of properties on the World Heritage List,” the statement said.

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