Protect human rights in trans-boundary investments - the message from the 2018 SEA conference on Human Rights and Business

8th Annual Conference
8th Annual Conference

Protect human rights in trans-boundary investments - the message from the 2018 SEA conference on Human Rights and Business

Delegates at the 8th Southeast Asian regional conference on Human Rights and Business in Chiang Khong, Thailand have released the Mekong Statement, committing ourselves to strengthening collaboration on confronting human rights abuses related to business activities in the region and calling for change in the region to better protect human rights.

The conference was hosted by the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand, the Community Resource Centre and the Forest Peoples Programme on 8th and 9th September, and brought together representatives from across Southeast Asia. Support for the conference was provided by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) and the Samdhana Institute. Participants included the national human rights institutes of Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia and the Philippines as well as regional and national human rights organisations, local civil society actors, academia and indigenous peoples.  

This annual event, now in its 8th year, has supported the emergence of a network of committed actors working to challenge, expose and respond to the worst impacts of business on human rights. The network, which includes the members of the South East Asian National Human Rights Institutions’ Forum (SEANF), and a supportive network of indigenous and human rights organisations, gets together once per year to share experiences and strategies for tackling issues such as migrant workers and labour rights in agribusiness plantations (2017), jurisdictional approaches to regulating business (2016) and National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights (NAPs).

In recognition of the rapid rise in the level of trans-boundary investment and transnational companies operating in Southeast Asia and the fact that the impacts of business often go beyond borders, this year’s conference, focused specifically on trans-boundary issues. Developments along the Mekong river, which crosses 6 countries, was a key focus.

The day before the main conference, delegates were warmly welcomed by the nearby communities of Boonruang and Huay Luek. In Boonruang community members are working tirelessly to protect the wetland area where they live, along the Ing river, from a proposed Special Economic Zone which offers benefits to companies setting up in the area. Villagers told delegates of the potential of such a project to destroy valuable biodiversity and important food resources.

In Huay Luek village, on the banks of the Mekong, the community told delegates about the severe impacts of dams on their way of life. Dams upstream, in China, are causing erratic water levels which has led to floods and severely damaged fish stocks which the community rely on for food and for income. Many community members have been forced to move to cities in search of alternative livelihoods, and those remaining in the community have only agricultural use permits and no secure land ownership rights.

The powerful stories from Boonruang and Huey Luek were echoed on the first day of the conference when participants from across the region shared stories of communities facing and responding to the threat of further human rights violations caused by business and by the lack of government regulation of business.

On the final day, the discussion turned to solutions.

Alongside making their own commitment to continued collaboration on these issues, conference delegates issued a statement calling for the private sector and governments to push forwards effective responses to negative impacts of business investment, including through strengthening the mandates and independence of NHRIs in the region, and through effective sharing of information and strategies to help individual cases achieve redress and resolution.

Although the conference heard many stories of significant human rights violations, including violations to collective land and resource rights, participants also heard of inspiring and new strategies to hold businesses accountable, and in the best cases, to work with business to better mitigate risks and ensure human rights in investment projects.

We look forward to working on the conference commitments over the course of the year, and to coming together to assess progress in 2019.