Regional statement takes stock of progress made and challenges remaining towards binding human rights standards on the agribusiness sector

Under embargo until 07.00 GMT 10 November 2014

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Monday 10 November 2014, Yangon, Myanmar – On 4 – 6 November, National Human Rights Commissions and civil society organisations of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Lao PDR and Myanmar, congregated in Yangon for the Fourth Regional Conference on Human Rights and Agribusiness in Southeast Asia, this year hosted by the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, co-organised by Forest Peoples Programme and RECOFTC – The Centre for People and Forests, and supported by the Rights and Resources Initiative, Ford Foundation, the Climate and Land Use Alliance, and the UK Department for International Development.

The conference assessed progress made since the Bali Declaration on Human Rights and Agribusiness in Southeast Asia (2011) towards building regulatory capacity and standards in Southeast Asia by promoting the application of binding international human rights standards on the agribusiness sector, as embodied in the resulting Yangon Statement on Human Rights and Agribusiness in Southeast Asia. Dr. Marcus Colchester, Senior Policy Advisor of Forest Peoples Programme, stated

It is encouraging to learn of the progress being made by several NHRIs to develop National Action Plans to implement the UN Guiding Principles of Business and Human Rights and that efforts are already underway to develop new laws making it obligatory for business to respect human rights. The National Inquiries into the rights of indigenous peoples, undertaken by the National Human Rights Commissions in Malaysia and underway in Indonesia, show that stronger laws are needed to protect indigenous peoples’ customary rights to lands and forests. The recommendations of these Inquiries now need to be acted on.

Experiences were shared by participants regarding the various initiatives underway in the region towards moving from policy to legal reforms that ensure that framework laws accommodate tenurial and cultural diversity, and are in harmony with international human rights principles. Cambodian delegates from the Community Legal Education Centre (CLEC), NGO Forum Cambodia and the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC), noted jointly that

The government of Cambodia is a signatory to several international human rights instruments and treaties, however the continued absence of an independent National Human Rights Commission means the government also lacks this crucial mechanism to ensure that human rights are duly protected and respected. The outcomes of the series of annual dialogues on agribusiness and human rights that the Yangon conference is part of, clearly demonstrate that if governments do not actively uphold the interests of their people, then transnational and others businesses will take advantage of the situation, leading to social conflict and suffering which the government must remedy.

The obstacles to the implementation of laws in practice were also analysed, as were opportunities to promote coordination among National Human Rights Institutions in the region to address human rights abuses associated with trans-boundary investments, labour migration and human trafficking. A key issue raised was that of overcoming the asymmetry of power in relations between companies and communities, and how this affects access to information, building community capacity, providing legal support and making Free, Prior and Informed Consent effective. The Commissioners noted the huge number of complaints they have received in recent years, the great majority about land grabs, land conflicts and the violation of the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities. Andiko of legal and human rights NGO HuMA and ASM Law Offices in Indonesia, notes

Democratisation requires robust and accountable laws that are both rigorously implemented and independently monitored. Complementing legal and policy reform at the national and regional levels, community capacity-building and access to information remain essential to ensuring grassroots transformation towards a rights-based approach to development. Respect for rights is a win-win solution, not only because it protects communities, but also because it gives those responsible and progressive companies who are striving towards best practice a greater competitivity in international markets.

In searching for solutions to these challenges, the meeting focused on the need to strengthen the capacities and mandates of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRI) including through overcoming the legal, practical and structural barriers that impede respect for rights, measures to implement international and regional law, the harmonization of laws (including customary law) at different levels of government and improved adoption of NHRI recommendations by governments. The Statement also called for strengthened regional cooperation between Southeast Asian National Forums (SEANF) and the ASEAN InterGovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), the setting up of an ASEAN Human Rights Court, and the establishment of national level complaints and redress mechanisms. Dr Nirun Pithakwatchara, Commissioner of the Thailand National Human Rights Commission, states

Particularly concerned and actively engaged on investigating trans-boundary corporate human rights abuses, we call on the governments of ASEAN’s State Parties to make all efforts towards guaranteeing that the rights of their peoples are secured through the development of effective and appropriate safeguards, and sustained through constructive multi-stakeholder dialogue, towards regional and local development which is genuinely sustainable in the environmental and social senses, and which takes into due consideration rights and particularities of ASEAN’s numerous indigenous peoples.

Looking forward, Rodziah Abdul, Secretary of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) states

In line with the aspiration for an ASEAN Community by 2015, which strives to create a people-centred ASEAN, it is necessary to ensure that broad and meaningful consultation is at the core of every policy-making process within member-states, including on human rights issues. SUHAKAM is of the view that in anticipation of ASEAN Chairmanship in 2015, Malaysia, which is highly regarded by its neighbours for its steady economic development and growth, should also be seen as a leading nation in the realm of human rights promotion and protection.

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Notes for editors

  • The UK-based NGO Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) and Thailand-Based partner NGO RECOFTC – The Center for People and Forests co-organised the Yangon Conference on Human Rights and Agribusiness in Southeast Asia on 4 – 6 November 2014 at the Kandawgyi Palace Hotel, Yangon, Myanmar. A press conference was held on 6 November at 13:00 – 14:00 at the Kandawgyi Palace Hotel.
  • The workshop brought together National Human Rights Commissions and Institutions, academics, civil society organisations and United Nations representatives from Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia and Lao PDR to assess progress made in ensuring that agribusiness expansion respects and protects the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, and to develop collaborative strategies to move from a ‘business to business’ voluntary to one that imposes normative human rights obligations on private sector operators and national governments.

Contact persons:

  • Caroline Liou, Communication Manager, RECOFTC (Thailand), +66 (0)86 067 3228, caroline.liou@recoftc.org (English language)
  • Zaw Win, Communication Officer, RECOFTC (Myanmar), +95 (0)9250263842 zaw.win@recoftc.org (Myanmar language)
  • Sophie Chao, Project Officer, Forest Peoples Programme, +62 812 95165111, sophie@forestpeoples.org (English language)

Workshop organising bodies:

  • Forest Peoples Programme, 1c Fosseway Business Centre, Stratford Road, Moretonin-Marsh, Gloucestershire GL56 9NQ, UK; tel. +44 (0)1608652893; www.forestpeoples.org
  • RECOFTC – The Center for People and Forests, P.O. Box 1111, Kasetsart Post Office, Phahonyothin Rd, Bangkok 10903, Thailand; tel. +66 (0)29405700; www.recoftc.org
  • Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, 27 Pyay Road, Hlaing Township, Yangon, Republic of the Union of Myanmar; tel. +12 (0)34 567 899 (from abroad), 01 34567899 (from Myanmar); http://www.mnhrc.org.mm/en/

With support from:

  • The Rights and Resources Initiative: 1238 Wisconsin Avenue NW, Suite 300, Washington, DC 20007, USA. Tel: +1 202 4703900. Email: info@rightsandresources.org
  • The Climate and Land Use Alliance: 235 Montgomery Street, 13th Floor, San Francisco, California 94104, USA. Tel: +1 (0)4154330566. Email: info@climateandlandusealliance.org
  • Ford Foundation: 320 East 43rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10017, USA. Tel: +1 (0)212 573 5000. Email: office-of-communications@fordfoundation.org
  • The Department for International Development: 22 Whitehall, London, SW1A 2EG, UK. Tel: 0300 200 3343 (from the UK), +44 (0)1355 84 3132 (from abroad). Email: enquiry@dfid.gov.uk