The operating license for Formosa Chemicals & Fiber Corp’s coal-fired plant in Changhua County expired in September after it failed to meet sulfur dioxide emissions standards.
Earlier this month, the Taichung High Administrative Court rejected a provisional injunction request filed by the company to continue the plant’s operations. The shutdown might lead to more than 1,000 employees and downstream vendors losing their jobs.
The corporation’s labor union mobilized its members and their families to protest to the Changhua County Government, asking to be allowed to resume work, while environmentalists and some local residents complaining about the air pollution have come out in support of the local authority. The relationship between workers (blue) and environmentalists (green) is often described as an everlasting conflict.
Legal and policy commentators have largely overlooked the conflicting aspect of human rights and environmental protection. One obvious example of this exclusion is the absence of any direct reference to such conflicts in the UN Human Rights Council’s official report Analytical Study on the Relationship between Human Rights and the Environment.
This issue cannot be resolved in the abstract, for example by the general concept of sustainable development, but only in a concrete sense, whether for a specific policy or in a specific legal case.
In global adjudication practices, tensions between environmental policy and social development considerations — such as health, labor and indigenous people — have been addressed to strike a balance between various interests.
Many courts achieve that by implying environmental rights in other constitutional or treaty-based human rights, in effect eradicating any hierarchy through interpretation, such as in Kitok versus Sweden, African Commission versus Kenya and Turgut versus Turkey. They express that the purposes of environmental protection and human rights are largely synergetic, as both aim to assure human well-being.
A number of global alliances and win-win solutions can be found outside the courtrooms. A recent study by the Sierra Club shows that labor unions representing employees of coal-fired plants in Connecticut and Maryland have supported the closing of their highly polluting workplaces, since governmental officials and environmentalists support a just and fair transition program to protect common interest of human survival and sustainable livelihoods.
Similarly, in the recent Keystone XL pipeline controversy in the US, some climate advocates worked with labor unions to campaign for divesting funds from fossil-fuel corporations to invest in creating climate-friendly jobs. They say every environmental campaign should also address the other two pillars — namely social and economical — of sustainable development.
As for the Formosa Chemicals case, reaching a tripartite environmental protection agreement between the company, the county government and affected communities could be a feasible solution. The legal foundation for such an agreement can be found in Article 30 of the Public Nuisance Dispute Mediation Act (公害糾紛處理法) and Article 28 of its enforcement rules.
The county is in a proper position to consider this collaborative approach and invite all the stakeholders to negotiate a sophisticated proposal not only for sake of the environment, but also for the livelihoods of working-class people.
Yang Chung-han is a doctoral candidate researching international environmental law at the University of Cambridge and a member of the Taipei Bar Association.
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