Extreme air pollution in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, threatens the health and safety of almost half of Mongolia’s population. In May 2019, the Mongolian government will introduce a raw coal ban in multiple districts of its capital to reduce air pollution in its “ger” communities as part of its National Program for Reducing Air and Environmental Pollution (NPRAEP). In an October 2018 keynote address, Daniela Gaparikova, the Deputy Resident Representative for Mongolia to the United Nations Development Program, described the air pollution crisis as a violation of the right to “a standard of living adequate for health” under Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and citizens’ “right to [a] healthy and safe environment and to be protected against environmental pollution and ecological imbalance” under Article 16.2 of Mongolia’s constitution. The air pollution crisis is a climate, health, and human rights crisis that could have implications under national and international law for violation of citizens’ environmental and human rights.
A changing economy and climate have caused unexpected migration from rural communities to Ulaanbaatar. After transitioning from a soviet era command economy to a free-market democracy in 1991, caps on livestock and state support were removed from herding communities causing a sharp increase in livestock populations and subsequent pastureland degradation. Mongolia’s nomadic culture took a second hit when summers became drier, severe weather events became more frequent, and hundreds of bodies of water succumbed to encroaching desertification attributed to climate change. Rural influx to Ulaanbaatar quickly led to the unplanned “ger” communities dominating Ulaanbaatar’s northern district, which burns over one million tons of raw coal each year.
Mongolia’s air pollution crisis is a health and human rights crisis. “Ger” communities burn raw coal in the winter months to survive temperatures sometimes hitting below fifty degrees Fahrenheit causing months of air pollution levels reaching as high as 133 times what the World Health Organization (WHO) considers safe. Ulaanbaatar’s almost 1.5 million residents endure months of exposure to high concentrations of pollutants small enough to “penetrate the lung barrier and enter the blood stream,” causing heart and lung disease, pneumonia, bronchitis, stroke, and impaired cognitive development in children. Pollution has become so severe that many families now send their children to the countryside during the winter.
Mongolia has made past attempts at decreasing its air pollution concentrations under its Ulaanbaatar Clean Air Project (UBCAP) in 2012 and other international commitments under the UN Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC). According to the World Bank, air pollution declined in response to UBCAP measures until the 2015 financial crisis left enforcement of efficient stove and home insulation initiatives at a standstill. The 2017 NPRAEP, the newest initiative to combat air pollution, aims to overcome the financing issues of past programs to meet ambitious goals for air pollution reduction by 2025. In May, the coal ban takes effect in line with a revamp of other initiatives attempting to curb air pollution. However, many in Mongolia are “skeptical that the Mongolian government will be able to enforce the ban.”
Mongolia could face liability for its human rights crisis if it fails to mitigate its air pollution levels. An amicus brief by Human Rights Watch to the Supreme Court of Chile suggested that state and regional court systems have used international law as a guide to interpret and apply state constitutional provisions concerning environmental rights. The brief said that international frameworks, specifically the 2018 U.N. Special Rapporteur’s Framework Principles (Framework Principles), outlined obligations that could be “instructive to courts around the world.”
The Framework Principles could provide guidelines for interpreting Mongolia’s basic environmental and human rights obligations. Under Articles 6.4 and 16.2 of Mongolia’s constitution, “the state regulates the economy . . . to ensure . . . social development of the population,” and citizens have a “right to [a] healthy and safe environment and to be protected against environmental pollution and ecological imbalance.” If a case were to be brought to the Mongolian court, the court could choose to use the Framework Principles to interpret its constitutional obligations pursuant to international law standards. Framework provisions such as the responsibility to “protect and fulfill human rights . . . to ensure a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment” (Principle 2), to provide effective remedies for violations of environmental law (Principle 10), and to adopt international standards for air pollution levels from organizations such as the WHO (Principle 11, 33(b)) could be used by the court to interpret the state’s affirmative obligations to ensure social development, a healthy and safe environment, and protection from environmental pollution under Articles 6.4 and 16.2 of its constitution.
If it fails to mitigate its extreme air pollution problem, Mongolia could face litigation for violating its citizens’ constitutional right to protection against environmental pollution and other affirmative obligations under the U.N. Special Rapporteur’s Framework Principles. The new coal ban effective this May will likely be watched closely and could be an important indicator of the NPRAEP’s future success.