Human Rights Hero Passes Away

Peter Bosshard
Kader Asmal and Nelson Mandela at the launch of the WCD report
Kader Asmal and Nelson Mandela at the launch of the WCD report

The World Commission on Dams was one of the most unusual experiments in global governance. Mandated to develop a new model for water and energy projects, it brought together, among others, a firebrand activist from India, a corporate CEO from Sweden, an indigenous rights advocate from the Philippines, and a dam engineer from the US. Thanks to the genius and determination of its chair Kader Asmal, this unlikely group of experts from opposite walks of life worked together to produce a breakthrough for human rights and the environment. Unlike many other such documents, their report, Dams and Development, has never gathered dust. Earlier today, Kader Asmal – an independent spirit and tireless advocate for human rights – died in his native South Africa.

Kader Asmal was born in 1934 and became an anti-apartheid activist early in his life. His commitment to social justice brought him to the study of law, which he taught in his British and Irish exile for 27 years. In 1990, Asmal returned to South Africa, where he became a leading negotiator for the end of apartheid, a member of parliament for the ANC, and one of the authors of the new South African constitution. He served his country as Minister of Water Affairs (1994-99) and Minister of Education (1999-2004). Even after leaving office, he remained a staunch defender of human rights and civil liberties.

In 1998, Kader Asmal was invited to chair the newly-formed World Commission on Dams (WCD), the independent body that had been tasked to evaluate the development effectiveness of dams and propose a new framework for decision-making on such projects. His name had been suggested by an official of the World Bank, but Professor Asmal soon made it clear that he was in nobody’s pocket. With his fellow Commissioners, he embarked on a mission through a political minefield of conflicting interests and expectations. They were interested in a genuinely new approach to difficult development questions, not in a business-as-usual report that would identify the lowest common denominator and soon be forgotten.

Kader Asmal and his colleagues devised a process like development diplomacy had not seen it before. In a two-year effort, they commissioned 130 technical papers, carried out consultations with 1,400 participants in different parts of the world, studied seven dams and three countries in great depth, reviewed another 125 dams in less detail, and solicited 950 submissions from experts and the interested public. Kader Asmal was keenly aware of political realities, but only committed to intellectual independence and the basic values of human rights. He led the process with tireless determination, sly negotiating skills, and caustic wit.  

It was not the duty of environmental activists to make life easy for the Commissioners, and we certainly did not. But Kader Asmal did not mind. Throughout the process, he honored the real-life experience of a dam-affected farmer and the ideas of an NGO activist as much as the expertise of an academic and the testimony of a government minister.

On November 16, 2000, Kader Asmal and his fellow Commissioners published their report, Dams and Development, in the presence of Nelson Mandela at a grand celebration in London. Their great contribution to the global development debate was a rights-based approach in which conflicting interests are resolved through an open and fair process in which all parties who have legitimate rights at stake in a project – dam-affected people as much as investors – have a place at the negotiating table. While the Commission was very much a group effort, the report strongly reflects the rights-based philosophy of its chair.

The WCD’s new decision-making framework was applauded by civil society groups, and found a lot of interest among international organizations and development institutions. In an era that soon saw the advent of the global “war on terror” and the emergence of new dam financiers, the report’s insistence on unalienable rights did not sit well with many powers that be. But it empowered dam-affected people around the world, and inspired development agencies to find new ways of decision-making for their projects. Over the years, all major actors in the global dams debate have endorsed the report’s core values and strategic principles.

Through all these years and in spite of his numerous other duties, Kader Asmal has always stood up for the WCD’s rights-based approach. He contributed a typically humorous message to our activities around the 5th anniversary of the report in 2005. And he personally attended a seminar on the report’s 10th anniversary at Stockholm International Water Week in September 2010, where he witnessed the great interest and heated debates which his ideas continued to create.

On June 22, 2011, Kader Asmal died near Cape Town after a heart failure. His is survived by his wife, two sons and two grandchildren. Rest in Peace, Comrade Kader Asmal! Your commitment to human rights and civil liberties has always been an inspiration. Your legacy lives on.

Peter Bosshard is the Policy Director of International Rivers. He was a member of the WCD Forum from 1998-2001.