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Business and Human Rights in Asia: A strategy for the year ahead

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Given the widespread abuse of human rights by companies based or operating in Asia, it is extremely important for Asian NGOs to become involved in and advocate for corporate social responsibility.  For this reason, FORUM-ASIA participated in the Corporate Accountability Strategy Meeting that took place in New York City on 30 April to 1 May 2007.

Clarence Dias represented FORUM-ASIA at the Corporate Accountability
Strategy Meeting that took place in New York City on April 30-May 1,
2007. This meeting was hosted by the International Network for
Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR-Net), Rights and
Accountability in Development (RAID), Human Rights Watch, International
Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), International Commission of
Jurists, and Amnesty International.  The goal of the gathering was to
discuss and plan engagement with governments and UN processes related
to business and human rights over the coming year, as well as to
advance the collective work of the ESCR-Net Corporate Accountability
Working Group.

This meeting, though held in New York with many international groups,
is extremely important to Asia and Asian NGOs because so much
manufacturing and natural resource extraction takes place in Asia,
where companies sometimes take advantage of the looser policies and
oversight to either actively engage in or passively allow human rights
abuses.  According to Business in Asia, all of the top Fortune 100
companies have some aspect of their business in Asia.  It isn’t a
matter of concern only when Western business set up shop in here. Asian
companies, such as those based in Japan and China dominate Fortune’s
top 50 Asian Companies list and often operate in other Asian countries
with more relaxed laws; the existence of such a list indicates the
growing power these companies have in markets in Asia as well as
globally.  This is not to say growth in itself is a bad thing,
certainly not, but we must be careful at how these companies proceed
because it is not in the interest of these companies to police

In most cases in Asia, host countries are not able to regulate these
companies and their local partners, as in Laos or Cambodia, where the
government is equipped to do very little, even if they were willing. 
We must not wait for governments, which often have few resources and
many infrastructure and other problems to address, to police
multinational corporations, no matter where they are based – these
companies bring much-needed revenue and jobs to countries itching for
growth.  These host governments will not bite the hand that feeds them,
so it is up to larger more powerful entities to convince the companies
to respect basic human rights.

The debate on business and human rights has generally focused on two
areas: corporate social responsibility – a company’s voluntary
obligation to set standards for itself in order to respect all
stakeholders, not bound by anything other than the word of the company,
(included in the term “soft law”); and corporate accountability – laws
that bind corporations to respect rights, and if they are violated then
there are redress and remedies for the violations (included in the term
“hard law”).

Currently in Asia, there are typically two sectors in the spotlight for
human rights abuses, though it is not to say that ALL companies in both
categories trample rights: extractive industries such as gold, coal,
gas and oil, and supply chain industries that produce clothing, shoes
and other consumer goods. The “chain” starts with laborers in a factory
in China (for example) and goes all the way up to the store where the
item is sold. 

Countries with governments unwilling or unable to stop abusive
practices often end up as places where such companies flourish.  Burma,
for example, has come under attack many times for the displacement it
condones, which pushes out thousands of people from their homes and
fuels gross human rights violations.  The latest example is a
hydro-electric dam currently being built the Burmese government and a
Thai company called MDX.  In an ironic example of what the government
is willing to do to its people, 400 villagers were forced to welcome
high-ranking government officials in a “celebration” of their own
displacement and forced labor:

Those attending the celebration today include villagers already
forcibly relocated from their homes north of the dam-site. In the past
ten years, the Burma Army has relocated over 60,000 villagers from
areas adjoining the dam site and the projected flood zone. Villagers
found in hiding who have remained in the vicinity have been tortured,
raped and killed.

"These villagers have already been driven at gunpoint from their homes
and lands. Now they are being forced to clap and cheer while MDX joins
hands with their oppressors to construct a dam that will flood their
homes for ever," said Sai Sai, spokesperson of Sapawa.

Since 1998, the Thai contracting company MDX has been preparing for the
construction of the Tasang dam and on April 3, 2006, MDX and Burma's
regime, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), signed an MoU
for the joint development of the 7,110 megawatt dam.1



tragedy and others like it are very familiar to the stakeholders at the
New York meeting.  The groups came together to ask what can we do, and
how?  The current Business and Human Rights UN Special Representative
John Ruggie notes in his most recent report that states have the
obligation to protect against human rights abuses perpetrated by
international companies:

In sum, the state duty to protect against nonstate abuses is part of
the international human rights regime’s very foundation. The duty
requires states to play a key role in regulating and adjudicating abuse
by business enterprises or risk breaching their international

According to our representative at the New York meeting, Ruggie is not
currently advocating the interests of vulnerable groups in Asia in the
form of “hard” binding law.  Instead, he is leaning more towards the
interests of the businesses, would like to push for “soft”
accountability in the form of corporate social responsibility. 
Basically, Ruggie favours voluntary initiatives rather than binding
hard law. He stresses the responsibility of both home (where the
company is based) and host (where the company sets up shop) states to
protect their people against harmful corporate activities, and it
appears he is not particularly interested in the victims and their
perspectives. The danger is that he might omit binding international
standards in his Final Report, due out in a year, and would endorse
voluntary principles instead.  While most of the participants in New
York were dissatisfied with Ruggie, they were split between those who
felt they needed to work with and through him, and those who felt that
he would not be useful, and as a result did not want to issue harsh
criticism of his interim report or of his work more generally as SRSG.

There is a clear need for a campaign to promote the development of
human rights standards relating to corporations (through both binding
and soft law) at the international level. A working group formed at the
New York meeting will come out with a draft paper on the necessity,
content and approach of such international standards for all
participants to sign on to. FORUM-ASIA is in support of using the
existing mechanisms, while developing new universal standards for
corporations to voluntarily adhere to. Ruggie sums up the drawback of
sole state responsibility for rights monitoring in his concluding
section of the 2007 report:

In principle, public authorities set the rules within which business
operates. But at the national level some governments simply may be
unable to take effective action, whether or not the will to do so is
present. And in the international arena states themselves compete for
access to markets and investments, thus collective action problems may
restrict or impede their serving as the international community’s
“public authority.” The most vulnerable people and communities pay the
heaviest price for these governance gaps. (emphasis added)

It remains to be seen if the Special Representative will consider his
own advice.  Either way, Asian NGOs should do our best to make sure
these corporations are held accountable no matter where they are based
or operate.