Recent report prompts Southeast Asian National Human Rights Institutions and civil society organisations to adopt new Resolution on human rights and agribusiness

Participants of the Bangkok workshop on Human Rights and Agribusiness, Montien Hotel, Bangkok
Sophie Chao

Recent report prompts Southeast Asian National Human Rights Institutions and civil society organisations to adopt new Resolution on human rights and agribusiness

From 7 – 9 August 2013, representatives  from National Human Rights Institutions of the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Timor Leste and Myanmar and supportive civil society organisations, met in Bangkok to assess developments in the agribusiness sector and human rights since the Bali Declaration on Human Rights and Agribusiness in Southeast Asia in 2011 and the Phnom Penh Workshop on Human Rights and Agribusiness in 2012, and to develop an action plan for the effective enforcement of human rights by State parties in the agribusiness sector. The meeting was convened by the Thai National Human Rights Commission, with the support of the Forest Peoples Programme and the Rights and Resources Initiative. 

Professor James Anaya, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, opened the workshop and noted in his presentation the serious concerns raised over

“the rapid expansion of agribusiness in the region, … [the] lack of adequate regulatory controls and recognition of rights [and the] absence of responsible business practices, which often results in widespread problems for local communities, including indigenous peoples.”

The office of the Thai Representative to the ASEAN  Inter-Governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) reported on the opportunities to strengthen human rights frameworks through the ASEAN human rights mechanism, including through participation in the review of the Terms of Reference of the AICHR in 2014. 

Devasish Roy, member of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues also presented at the workshop and emphasised the importance of international financial institutions respecting the rights of indigenous peoples, including their rights to give or withhold their free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) to measures that may affect their rights. He also highlighted the importance of States ensuring that corporations observe human rights. 

Adrienne Gardaz from the UN Global Compact’s new Initiative on Sustainable Agriculture, shared the experiences and objectives of the Global Compact in encouraging companies to publicly commit to uphold core human rights principles and to report annually on their progress in implementation.

Under review at the workshop were the latest agribusiness trends in the region as summarised in a recent report Agribusiness, Large-Scale Land Acquisitions and Human Rights in Southeast Asia. The report shows that despite important national variations there is increasing pressure on land across Southeast Asia from expanding agribusinesses, particularly of oil palm and sugarcane plantations. The report also confirms that in the absence of secure community tenure, sound land governance and protection of human rights, large-scale agribusiness expansion is causing serious social and environmental harm. 

Reporting on their recent efforts to protect human rights, the National Human Rights Institutions noted that not only large-scale agribusiness schemes, but also mining, oil, gas, hydropower and road-building development, are causing escalating land conflicts. Although this is increasingly recognised by government agencies, unfortunately efforts by the hard-pressed commissions to reform and mediate conflicts are being overwhelmed by the number and scale of cases.

Participants heard detailed reports of how trans-boundary investments in agribusiness and other enterprises are causing serious human rights violations such as:

  • The lack of respect for customary land rights,
  • Violations of the right of indigenous peoples to free, prior and informed consent (FPIC),
  • Threats to local food security and livelihoods,
  • Forced evictions and relocations,
  • Lack of or unfair compensation and smallholders arrangements,
  • Criminalisation of community members and human and land rights activists,
  • Landlessness and impoverishment,
  • Child and forced labour,
  • Lack of access to effective mechanisms for remedy. 

Participants noted with grave concern the number of reports from many countries of military and State security forces’ involvement in human rights abuses and in the seizure of lands from communities and indigenous peoples without their consent. 

Strengthened regional intergovernmental coordination and collaboration between National Human Rights Institutions and among non-governmental organisations were agreed to be critical to address these challenges. 

During the workshop, the Montien Resolution was introduced in order to call on all Southeast Asian countries to establish their own independent Human Rights Commissions, in line with international law, highlighting that Singapore, Brunei Darussalam, Lao PDR, Vietnam and Cambodia do not currently have their own Human Rights Commissions. The Resolution reiterates the need for States to develop effective regulatory frameworks which secure communities’ rights to lands, territories and resources and which require agribusinesses to respect such rights in line with international human rights standards, including the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security

Welcoming efforts by the private sector to eliminate the trade in destructively produced commodities such as palm oil, timber, soy, biofuels and sugar, the Resolution demands full supply chain traceability in which environmental protections are matched with comprehensive protections of human rights. It also emphasises the urgent need to identify and encourage alternative production systems, based on secure rights and community-driven development, so that local communities, indigenous peoples and smallholders can realise their human rights and have greater local control of production activities and benefit sharing based on diversified land use.  

The Resolution also calls for coordinated action by both companies and governments to curb the exploitation of workers, especially migrants, women and children in large-scale plantations, and for governments to make determined efforts to eliminate all forms of forced labour and slavery-like practices from agribusinesses in the region.

The next workshop on Human Rights and Agribusiness is expected to take place in Myanmar in 2014, in collaboration with the Myanmar representatives present and co-organised with Forest Peoples Programme.

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