Resettled Farmers from Thilawa SEZ Travel to Tokyo to Demand Right to Land Compensation

This week, recently displaced villagers from the Thilawa Special Economic Zone near Yangon, Myanmar, did something that they were unable to do the first time the government confiscated their land nearly twenty years ago: they complained.  Surrounded by a flurry of reporters, village representatives traveled to Tokyo to complain to JICA, the Japanese government agency financing the Myanmar Government’s plans for Thilawa, requesting due process, bette

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Coke's report on responsible business practices in Myanmar sets standard for transparency on both successes and failures

I’ve just finished reading the report Coca-Cola submitted last week to the State Department on its business practices in Myanmar (Burma), and I have to say I’m impressed with how seriously this company seems to have taken the Responsible Business Reporting Requirements.  Those who have read prior ERI commentary on the Myanmar responsible business reports, which are mandatory for U.S. companies making large investments in Myanmar, will know that the Coke report is a welcome change of pace from the reports submitted by other investors. 

What makes the Coke report unique is the level of transparency it provides – both into the company’s successes and its failure in responsible business conduct – meaning that communities, investors, and the U.S. Government alike have a reasonable basis to engage with Coke and trouble-shoot human rights issues that may arise in the course of its operations.  Now, I can’t vouch for the truth of anything that’s disclosed here – though I have no specific reason to doubt the report, I have no idea if Coke and its local partner are actually being as careful and thorough about their human rights, environmental, and labor performance as they say here.  But the level of detail about the due diligence processes they’ve gone through, the concerns they’ve identified, and the steps they’ve taken to ensure that they and their partners are mitigating serious risks is exactly the kind of transparency needed to build trust between a company like Coca-Cola and the communities its operations will affect.

Of course, there are a couple of places in the report where Coke may be hiding the ball.  For example, the report explains that there’s a wastewater treatment issue that is in the process of being resolved.  But it never explains exactly what is happening to that wastewater . . .

Stand against Corporate Power with EarthRights International

The Power of Law and the Power of People. 

This is the motto that has guided us at EarthRights for almost 20 years, ever since a duo of American law students joined forces with me, a young human rights activist from Myanmar, and took a US oil company to court for terrible human rights abuses…and won.

As a supporter and friend of EarthRights, we know you stand with us in the belief that the law can be a powerful instrument for change, and a critical weapon in the fight for social and environmental justice. 

But what happens when the law – and those that wield its power – are more concerned with protecting corporate interests and profits than people? When big business has more rights than individual citizens? 

Unfortunately, this year more than ever, these questions have become increasingly real for us and for the communities and partners we work with all over the world.

In Myanmar, recent reforms have won the government praise and the lifting of international sanctions after decades of oppression. Big businesses are now clamoring to invest in new factories, mines, energy projects, and industrial plantations, but they’ve shown little concern for the people who happen to be in the way. 

Whole communities are being forced off their lands and left without a way to make a living. Further, there has been an alarming spate of arrests and prosecutions of activists who stand up for these communities and their land rights. Naw Ohn Hla, one such activist, was recently sentenced to two years hard labor simply for organizing a community protest against the publicly unpopular Leptadaung copper mine.

In the new Myanmar, those who dare to challenge business interests are today’s “prisoners of conscience.”

As an appeasement to western governments, Naw Ohn Hla was just released along . . .

U.S. Government’s Myanmar Reporting Requirements FAQs are a welcome (but inadequate) step forward

The U.S. State Department finally released a document providing answers to FAQs about the Responsible Investment Reporting Requirements for new investments in Myanmar, in which it directs investors to consult ERI’s Detailed Guidance on Reporting.  The FAQs are partially a response to the first round of company reports, which were filed in July, and which we criticized as inadequate both on our website and in a coalition letter to the Administration.  Let’s see if the U.S Government agrees that those company reports were as deficient as we suggested.

1. “Passive investors” and the responsibility to respect human rights

One of our biggest concerns with the first company reports was that a number of investment firms excused their lack of human rights and other due diligence policies by explaining that they were merely “passive investors” rather than active participants.  The FAQs appear to respond to this concern, noting that all investors must report regardless of the type of investment or whether they actually have operations in Myanmar, and that companies should answer each question carefully in light of the intended purposes of the Reporting Requirements. 

As the FAQs explain, “Because the human rights impacts of U.S. investment in Burma may be direct or indirect,” and because a company “may have significant influence over the activities of other entities in its supply chain,” it can be important even for investors with only a financial link to Myanmar to apply due diligence policies to their investments.  Note in particular that the U.S. Government does not limit its reporting expectations to companies that an investor actually controls, but rather includes those over which it may exercise significant influence by virtue of a business relationship.

2. Identifying Myanmar business partners

Another area of concern that ERI raised based on the initial company reports . . .

Myanmar Groups Send Letter to Obama on Reporting Requirements

EarthRights International helped to draft and signed a letter to President Obama this week, urging him to ensure that U.S. companies investing in Myanmar make complete and forthcoming disclosures under the Responsible Investment Reporting Requirements.  As we noted last month, the first five reports that were submitted have serious weaknesses that make them less useful for civil society groups and others who want to help businesses avoid human rights impacts arising out of their operations in Myanmar.  Most concerning are the absence of disclosures of local partners and contractors, and the decision of a set of investment funds to disclaim any responsibility for due diligence into their investments in a company owned by a Myanmar national and operating in Myanmar with interests in plantation agriculture, simply because the investors classify their investment is “passive.” The lack of due diligence and disclosures for passive investment are clearly against the spirit of the U.S. Reporting Requirements and do not follow best practices including those found in the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, which the U.S. Government has agreed to and is bound to follow.

EarthRights is asking the President to clarify that companies are expected to report on due diligence, regardless of the passive or hands-on nature of their investment, identify their Myanmar partners, and attach copies of or carefully summarize their relevant policies.  We also ask the government to clarify how it is tracking the Reporting Requirements disclosures to ensure that all covered companies are disclosing fully and in a timely manner.

First Myanmar Investment Disclosures Present Opportunities and Challenges

Two oil and gas service providers and two related investment management companies became the first U.S. investors to make public reports about their operations in Myanmar last week, under rules established by the U.S.

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U.S., European Economic Policy on Myanmar Pulled Between Two Extremes

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How can the world's major economies support political reform and take advantage of business opportunities in Myanmar, without exacerbating human rights abuses and fueling ethnic conflict? In a number of recent and upcoming decision points, the U.S. and European Union have the opportunity to address this question cautiously and strike an appropriate balance.

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U.S. "Approach on Business and Human Rights" Neglects Remedies for Victims

I have to admit I'm confused and disappointed by the "U.S. Government Approach on Business and Human Rights," which was published recently.  The Government's scattershot "approach" appears to consist of a random collection of public-private partnerships, generally informative and aspirational guides, and legislative initiatives, most of which are years -- if not decades -- old.  Most glaring of all, despite enthusiastic references to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the document completely ignores the need for victims to have access to justice and glosses over the administration's troubling record on remedies.

To be clear, it's not that the U.S. Government hasn't done anything on business and human rights -- undeniably, it has.  Congress has passed laws requiring transparency in the payments extractive companies make to governments and the due diligence companies undertake when sourcing metals from conflict-affected areas of Eastern Congo, and strengthening anti-human trafficking protections in government procurement.  Under President Obama, the U.S. has developed human rights reporting requirements for companies investing in Burma, pledged to implement the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, and put money and manpower into the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights.

It's just that it galls me to see the government patting itself on the back for this smorgasbord of mostly voluntary initiatives at a time when it has actively worked to undermine access to justice for victims of human rights abuses connected to both U.S. and foreign companies.  Why doesn't this document mention the U.S. brief in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, in which it argued (successfully, as it turned out) to narrow the ability of U.S. federal courts to hear the claims of victims of human rights abuses abroad?  How can the U.S. trumpet the National Contact Point for the OECD Guidelines for Multinational . . .

Human Rights Reporting Requirements for Burma Near End of Approval Process

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What can the U.S. government do to prevent its decision to allow an influx of U.S. investment into Myanmar from provoking human rights abuses and exacerbating ethnic conflict?  Prodded by civil society groups from both the U.S. and Myanmar, the administration has unveiled a plan: require investors to publicly report on a wide range of policies and procedures that touch on core human rights and environmental concerns.  The approval process for that plan, which has taken nearly a year and in which ERI has participated extensively, appears to be finally coming to a close.

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