Welcome address by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, Chair – Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats

At the Workshop on Climate Change

Setting CALD’s Climate Change Agenda

Bangkok, November 28th – 30th 2011

I am happy to welcome all of you here to the first of a series of discussions on Climate Change, which the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats has embarked on. We are particularly grateful that the Hon Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the Democrat Party of Thailand and former Prime Minister, has graced the occasion to deliver the keynote address. The recent floods in Thailand seem to me a clear example of the Climate Change that can have such adverse consequences and which needs to be address.

However I should note that, reading in the Thai papers about your debate in Parliament on this subject, we should bear in mind that perhaps Climate Change had little to do with the catastrophe, and that it was due more to bad management by the government that took over from the Democrats earlier this year. Indeed I gather there is yet another interpretation, namely that Khun Abhisit deliberately lost the election and then called down floods from heaven to show up the inadequacies of the successor government.

I leave it to you to choose which explanation is the most convincing. However in all of them there is an underlying fact that cannot be gainsaid, namely that the impact of inclement weather is getting worse and the consequences are upsetting for increasing numbers of people. Though I am not an expert in this field, I believe there is no doubt that what has been happening recently, and not only in Thailand, suggests that it is high time we as Asian Liberals looked at this issue and its effect on our countries.

I should note that I do have a greater familiarity with the subject than you might expect from someone with a literary background. The reason is that for nearly two years I was Secretary in Sri Lanka to the rather strangely named Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights. The name seemed to me illogical before I took up the position, and perhaps my appointment contributed to further illogicalities, but I should note that the experience was invaluable. This was not least because I gained greater understanding of the role of senior administrators, in particular when it comes to financial accountability, which we as Parliamentarians monitor through the Committee on Public Enterprises. But I also learnt much through what seemed the strange juxtaposition of subjects at the Ministry for which I was responsible.

Disaster Management requires precautionary measures as well as rapid responses when problems occur. Unfortunately the range of problems with which we have to deal has increased dramatically over the last few years, and I fear that one of the principal reasons for this is Climate Change. The most obvious example of this was the increasing frequency of flood and drought, in cycles that were unpredictable and of greater intensity.

I will leave it to our discussions however to decide on which areas we must concentrate. What I want to stress here is the connection, which I had not understood until I worked at the Ministry, between Disaster Management and Human Rights. At present the discourse on Rights dwells largely on Civil and Political Rights, and this is understandable inasmuch as these are of greatest concern to those in a position to worry about Rights. But when after the Second World War the United Nations enunciated its doctrine of Universal Human Rights, it also emphasized the importance of Economic and Social Rights. These are of vital importance to those who are voiceless, and we in Asia must speak for them in a context in which they might be forgotten, in the blithe assumption that the trickle down effects of economic growth will solve their problems.

Disasters strike the poor most harshly, and their resilience is less. These facts make clear the importance of putting measures in place to avoid disaster as well as to mitigate its effects. Given the increasing impact of changing weather patterns, as illustrated graphically in Bangkok where we are now meeting, we must develop policies to deal with these problems, and not only implement them systematically but also monitor the work that is being done and fine tune our responses. We need to examine how we have contributed to potential disaster, not only through global warming but also through irresponsible urbanization that enhances the ill effects of climate change.

Economic development is vital, and we must promote this through our commitment to private enterprise and free markets. But we must also remember the importance of ensuring that its benefits accrue to those who need them most. We cannot forget the social roots of liberalism and its commitment, as Gladstone put it, to the masses, rather than the classes who might be the driving forces in the economy. And just as we promote actively the ability of all our citizens to participate in economic productivity, through social services that develop necessary skills and competencies, so too we must ensure protection from the disasters that can knock them off balance so conclusively.

In welcoming you here, then, I would like to affirm again the importance of this subject for those pillars of liberalism, equal rights as well as free enterprise. Equity may be difficult to achieve, but the impact of climate change could deprive many of their hopes of fuller participation in economic and social activity. Let us bear in mind our obligations in those respects too in our deliberations.

Daily News 1 Dec 2011 – http://www.dailynews.lk/2011/12/01/fea03.asp