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In the renewable race, Mongolia chooses profit over humans and nature

March 02, 2024
topic:Political violence
tags:#Mongolia, #renewable energy, #mining, #indigenous rights, #freedom of speech, #human rights defenders
by:Lital Khaikin
Amid opposition to the greenwashing of Erdeneburen hydro dam, the Mongolian government ignores two years of UN appeals to comply with international human rights law.

As Mongolia emerges as a global source for rare earth resources and its western landscapes are newly exploited for oil, a mining boom is fuelling a growing demand for hydroelectric dams. What does this bode for human rights and environmental activism in the country?

Among Mongolia’s most controversial developments is the Erdeneburen hydroelectric dam, financed by a USD 1 billion soft loan by China’s EximBank and entirely owned by the Mongolian government.

The Erdeneburen hydropower plant, scheduled for a five-year period phase aiming for a 2026 operational start, spans across the Khovd River in western Mongolia. It will occupy as much as 28,000 hectares, reaching into areas adjacent to Tsambagarav Uul National Park and Khar Us Lake, thus influencing wetlands protected under the Ramsar Convention.

The construction of the 90 MW dam would flood settlements along the river basin, leading to the internal displacement of more than 1,200 individuals and over a million livestock. Resettlement initiatives would force semi-nomadic pastoralists into a single, permanent settlement, despite the scarcity of grazing land.

Rhodante Ahlers, an independent social and environmental justice researcher who collaborated with Mongolian activists through the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO), emphasised how the impacts of projects like Erdeneburen ripple far beyond surface-level displacement of Mongolian herders.

In the South Gobi region, flagship ventures such as the Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold mine have led to the displacement of herders. These communities have historically faced challenges in securing recognition for Indigenous status, land claims and traditional land stewardship practices.

Pastoralism is not commonly respected in a world that values privatisation and compartmentalisation, Ahlers explained to FairPlanet. But nomadic herders are those who hold the deepest knowledge of how small-scale changes can impact vast ecosystems. Pastoralists, she added, understand how to manage large landscapes and protect regional biodiversity on scales that cannot be grasped through sedentary lifestyles and development plans based on privatisation models.

"With this compartmentalisation of knowledge, we’ve lost the connectedness of our soil and our water," she said. "And now we’re desperately trying to relink."

Criminalising opposition

As the Erdeneburen dam has been touted as a means for Mongolia to achieve energy independence from Russia, opposition has been construed as sabotaging national economic interests. The criminalisation of Mongolia’s most prominent human rights defender and environmental activist signals a concerning climate for activism in the country.

Mongolian human rights advocate Sukhgerel Dugersuren has spent nearly two years entangled in criminal charges that have politicised her activism.

Dugersuren is known for advocating for environmental protection and the rights of internally displaced herders. As a director of the research group Oyu Tolgoi Watch, she has been particularly outspoken about multinational mining development in the Gobi, and weaknesses in impact assessments and monitoring for compliance in the mining sector.

On 2 August, 2022, Mongolia’s General Intelligence Agency (GIA) launched a criminal investigation into Dugersuren’s alleged role in "sabotaging" the country’s economic interests through "illegal cooperation with foreign agents/agencies."

The case was opened following the publication of an op-ed by the activist that denounced the construction of the dam and warning against the ecological devastation of the Erdeneburen Hydropower Reservoir. 

The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders has called for the Mongolian government to halt the persecution of Dugersuren. Over 130 international civil rights organisations signed a joint letter decrying the accusations as false and baseless given that no evidence for the allegations has been presented by the authorities. 

An appeal by FrontLine Defenders emphasised the reprisal against environmental and human rights activism for opposing economic interests. Under the Mongolian Criminal Code, they wrote, "there will be a mechanism for reclaiming costs incurred due to the 'lost opportunity.' "

The Mongolian government has ignored several appeals by UN Special Rapporteurs. UN officials submitted another letter in June 2023, expressing concern that Dugersuren’s case is "directly connected to her exercise of her right to freedom of expression to highlight environmental and social risks" associated with the dam. 

To date, they have not received a response.

David Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, told FairPlanet, "It is deeply disappointing that the government of Mongolia has failed to provide a response to the letter that my colleagues and I sent in June 2023."

Emphasising the urgency of addressing the climate crisis, Boyd added, "Governments should be listening to these environmental leaders, not attempting to silence them by attempting to intimidate them or criminalise their actions."

Amnesty International’s East Asia Researcher Boram Jang told FairPlanet, "Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Mongolia has ratified, guarantees everyone the right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds and Mongolia has an obligation to uphold this right."

He added, "The Mongolian authorities must immediately drop all charges against Sukhgerel Dugersuren and cease all attempts to target, criminalise and stigmatise individuals who express concerns or opinions about development projects, including Sukhgerel Dugersuren."

At the time of this report, Mongolian officials have not responded to inquiries from FairPlanet.

Frail human rights guardrails

The Erdenburen dam has long faced popular opposition. In October 2022, in the wake of negotiations with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Mongolian police detained demonstrators who had blockaded sections of the Khovd River basin, preventing access for drilling and excavation equipment.

Dugersuren’s case has triggered concern from civil rights organisations over Mongolia’s overall compliance with international human rights standards.

A recent UN assessment of Mongolia’s justice system stressed the need for greater independence, accountability and the need to protect prosecution service "from undue interference."

The assessment found a "widespread lack of trust in the judiciary" from the public and cited social media attacks on judges by public officials. 

Reporters Without Borders has also acknowledged press restrictions, censorship, harassment, violence and threats by high-ranking government officials in the country. This includes the recent imprisonment of journalist and editor Unurtsetseg Naran, known for reporting on fraud and corruption, for criticising the same judiciary scrutinised by the UN. 

Following Naran's detention, Mongolian journalists and editors expressed concerns over politically motivated arrests

Mongolia's legal framework exhibits significant shortcomings, especially in its inconsistent approach to upholding human rights protections. On 1 July, 2021 Mongolia made history as the first Asian country to adopt human rights defender (HRD) protection law, ironically just a year prior to charging the country’s most renowned activist with espionage and sabotage.

Iria Castro, Advocacy and Outreach Coordinator at Protection International in Brussels, referred to HRD laws as a "wicked policy problem," explaining that "a whole system of institutions across a State have to work simultaneously and interconnected for the policy to have an impact."

This becomes more complex when policy favours big business, corruption is rampant and the judiciary system lacks independence. "Those countries with the strongest protection legislation, policies and mechanisms are the ones with the biggest challenges and the highest risks," she explained, citing the example of the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

Like Mongolia, Congo has been positioned as "an alternative to China" for sourcing rare earths like cobalt and niobium. Castro indicated that a recent HRD protection law passed by Congo contains some problematic clauses. These include an obligation for activists to register and report activities annually and insufficient clarity on the "obligations and responsibilities of public institutions responsible for the protection of HRDs."

More mining, more power

The pressure to strengthen human rights laws and comply with international accountability mechanisms is only growing amid the greenwashing of Mongolia’s mining boom and the global shift toward dependency on rare earth resources.

Despite Erdeneburen being billed as "crucial for energy independence," Mongolia’s energy infrastructure has long been politicised. Russia has historically maintained power over Mongolia’s water resources, whereas China has held a firmer grip over the country’s coal. 

The Erdeneburen dam itself is intended to facilitate mining and oil extraction in western Mongolia, and is a crucial step in deeper integration into China’s Belt and Road infrastructure. The dam has been denounced for conflicting with the Belt and Road’s commitments to "smaller and greener projects."

With the increase in foreign investment, Mongolia is emerging as a more accessible alternative to China for sourcing rare earth minerals.

In contrast to Namibia, however, which imposed a protective policy in June 2023 on the export of unprocessed critical minerals, Mongolia has acquiesced to the burgeoning interests of multinational corporations.

With Washington prioritising rare earth minerals as a core part of national defence strategy, the "third neighbour" relationship Mongolia maintains with the US is only expected to deepen. Mongolia is also ramping up supply for critical metals for the EU, with recent negotiations with France solidifying deals in uranium and lithium exploration.

As Mongolia becomes a focal point for various interests competing for its resources and pushing for increased electricity capacity, the resulting power dynamics pose a growing threat to human rights and environmental activism. The lack of robust human rights defender (HRD) legislation and weak compliance with international human rights norms continue to raise concerns. The question remains: Will Mongolia continue on this precarious trajectory?

Image by Shelby Bauman.

Article written by:
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Lital Khaikin
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The Mongolian government has ignored several appeals by UN Special Rapporteurs.
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The Erdeneburen hydropower plant, scheduled for a five-year period phase aiming for a 2026 operational start, spans across the Khovd River in western Mongolia.
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The Erdenburen dam has long faced popular opposition.