Are human rights being side-lined to make way for ASEAN economic integration?

    From 24-27 April, Southeast Asian governments held the 26th ASEAN Summit, in Malaysia.  The Summit is significant because by the end of 2015, ASEAN is aiming to turn the region of 10 countries and over 600 million people into a competitive single economic market, with free flow of goods, services, investment, and labour.

    Irene Pietropaoli, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

    From 24-27 April, Southeast Asian governments held the 26th ASEAN Summit, in Malaysia.  The Summit is significant because by the end of 2015, ASEAN is aiming to turn the region of 10 countries and over 600 million people into a competitive single economic market, with free flow of goods, services, investment, and labour.

    With a predicted combined growth rate of around 5% in 2015, Southeast Asia is an increasingly powerful economic force.  As an economic bloc, Southeast Asia is growing faster than China or India and, if growth trends continue, it could become the fourth-largest economy in the world by 2050.  This can provide opportunities for the region’s people, but only if accompanied by improvements in human rights protection.

    Governments have articulated economic integration in terms of ensuring “inclusive, sustainable development for all”.  Discussion at the recent World Economic Forum on East Asia under the “New Economic Context” heading also recognised that environmental and social sustainability will be fundamental preconditions for future economic success.  Currently, however, economic development is coming at a high price for workers and communities, and for people that try to protect them.

    In its first Southeast Asia briefing, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre reviewed 280 allegations of human rights abuses by companies operating in the region. The cases highlight widespread intimidation of human rights defenders, forced labour and poor working conditions, including in the garment and fishing sectors, and land-grabs and displacement to clear the way for extractive and hydropower operations, agribusiness and the development of special economic zones.

    Heavy-handed actions by governments are often converging with economic interests, at the expense of workers and affected communities. Seventy percent of the allegations of abuses by companies involved some form of repression by government authorities, for example in the form of forced evictions of communities from their land in Myanmar, or the use of violence in breaking up workers’ strikes and protests in Cambodia.

    Increasingly, human rights defenders throughout Southeast Asia working to expose corporate human rights abuses are vulnerable to threats, intimidation and violence from both governments and companies. This repression is manifested through arbitrary detention, harassment lawsuits, and violence and intimidation. The pace of economic integration means that in many instances governments are rolling back protections and repressing dissent to encourage inward investment and rapid infrastructure development.

    Often companies use controversial laws to protect their interests, as in the case of the human rights researcher and activist Andy Hall, who faced six defamation charges for exposing labour abuses in the pineapple industry in Thailand.

    Over half of the cases of reported abuses in Southeast Asia involve land rights issues, including forced evictions, loss of livelihoods and disregard for the right to free, prior and informed consent. For example, the development of the Thilawa Special Economic Zone, an industrial complex in Myanmar, has already displaced thousands of residents to substandard relocation areas. Protests and formal complaints have not changed the government direction and the newest Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone, being developed on an island off Rakhine State, is now displacing local communities without proper compensation.

    With increasing investment and economic integration in the region, pressures on land and natural resources are likely to intensify, and protests about forced evictions are likely to increase unless governments provide protection and regulate for proper compensation. Instead, new legislation in many ASEAN countries is moving in the direction of undermining land rights. For example, the Thai military government’s mining bill seems designed to give businesses easy access to more land without the need for mitigation of impacts. While Myanmar’s new foreign investment law risks undermining human rights for not including land rights protection.

    From a government perspective, the business and human rights agenda in Southeast Asia is largely considered through the lens of voluntary corporate social responsibility – a perception that is reinforced by legislation in some countries that couches CSR in terms of philanthropic social contributions, thus skirting the need to directly address direct human rights abuses and their root causes. While promoting their CSR activities, some companies operating in the region have been involved in human rights abuses. An example is the Chinese mining company Wanbao, which in a joint venture with a Myanmar military owned company, is operating the Leptadaung copper mine in Myanmar. Last December, violence erupted at the mine as villagers opposed to the expansion of the mine clashed with police and Chinese workers. The clashes left a woman dead and dozens injured. Similarly violent clashes had occurred in the past, among them the November 2012 crackdown on peaceful protesters, where police were found to have used white phosphorous, which burned and injured dozens of protesters, including monks. For its part, Wanbao sent a statement to Business & Human Rights Resource Centre describing its CSR activities and the steps it has taken to obtain community support for the project.

    Beyond voluntary activities, corporate legal accountability for human rights abuses, especially when in complicity with government authorities, faces a number of obstacles. And victims are often denied access to effective remedies, as many countries in the region suffer for independence of the judiciary and widespread corruption.

    Corruption in business activities is deeply entrenched in most countries in Southeast Asia. Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar rank among the 30 most corrupted countries in the 2014 Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Corruption’s “ugly head rears in some of the most egregious abuses that occur whether with regard to land-grabs, supply-chain labour abuses or in connection with threats to the safety and physical integrity of human rights defenders”, said Sumi Dhanarajan, trustee of Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.

    There are some signs for hope. Some governments in the region such as Malaysia and Myanmar are committed to develop a National Action Plan on business and human rights. National Human Rights Institutions are examining complaints brought by victims of alleged human rights abuses by companies. Regional financial institutions are reconsidering loans to companies involved in abuses. Some companies are conducting thorough human rights due diligence for their operations. These rare efforts need to be replicated and built on. Companies and governments should devote as much attention to addressing adverse impacts as they are to encouraging investment and improving the economy. ASEAN governments have committed to “inclusive and sustainable growth”: this will only happen if accompanied by significant improvements in human rights protection for the people of the region.