Q&A: Limitations to what can be done about haze

SINGAPORE - Foreign Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam took questions from the media on the haze on Saturday. The following are edited excerpts.

Q: The latest comments from Indonesian ministers are that they won't apologise. Do you think they are taking this situation seriously? What else can be done to convey the seriousness to them?

"What we think of their comments, I think Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said what he thinks, so has Dr Vivian Balakrishnan.

"I think it's really not so productive to be trading accusations. We are used to being called a little red dot and previously when the haze problem occurred, other ministers have said we should be thankful for the oxygen that the Indonesia forests give us, so why are we complaining about the haze?

"Those sort of attitudes, I think people can see are not best designed to deal with the problem.

"Likewise, comments saying we are childish because we are complaining when haze reaches hazardous levels, I think people can judge for themselves. Our primary focus really is, solve the problem.

"Are they taking this seriously? I think my counterpart, Foreign Minister Marty (Natalegawa), has said Indonesia will not apologise. I'm not sure that we're asking for an apology.

"What we want is for the problem to be solved, that is really the point.

"What else can we do?

"Internationally... I've taken some pains to explain the limits of international law, international relations.

"Basically it's difficult to intervene in the internal affairs of another country to set right something.

"That principle is sacrosanct subject to a few exceptions. In the absence of (a) treaty of obligations, I mentioned that Indonesia has yet to ratify the treaty, the other things that we can do, I have outlined - the Asean ministerial meeting, the other fora.

"These are not without implications or consequences, everyone understands that. If we raise them, talk about them, then there are consequences from raising these."

Q: From how Asean countries discuss this issue, how can it be changed to come up with a better result or solution?

"Asean has looked at it, there's a treaty (Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution) that's in place.

"All countries have signed it, all have ratified it, except Indonesia.

"Of course, if it ratifies the treaty, then this becomes binding obligations.

"But for some reason which is difficult for us to understand, the Indonesian Parliament has taken the view that this treaty is not in the interest of Indonesia.

"I say difficult to understand because it helps the Indonesian people as much as it helps everyone else because they are also suffering from the haze."

Q: There's some disenchantment among Singaporeans that Asean is a paper tiger, nothing has come out on it regarding the haze.

"I can understand the feelings that people have. These are not feelings that are unique to Singaporeans.

"Very often, people in individual countries get upset with international organisations, be it the United Nations or, in this case, Asean.

"But in international law and international relations, as I have explained previously, there are limits to what regional bodies can do vis a vis the territorial sovereignty and the right of countries to take steps within their own countries.

"Nevertheless, Asean and international organisations prove useful and important platforms for issues to be raised and countries have to then account for their actions.

"And that by itself has had, in the past, impact on conduct of countries."