In 2006, the Cambodian government illegally granted land concessions in Sre Ambel district, Koh Kong province, to two companies for the purpose of a sugar plantation. The companies and local authorities expelled the residents of Chikor, Chhuk, and Trapeng Kendal communities from land that they depended on for their livelihoods, and to which they had a legal right under Cambodian law. More than 450 families lost about 5,000 hectares of land; in some cases company and government security personnel shot and beat local residents. With the assistance of the Community Legal Education Centre (CLEC), the communities sued in court in Cambodia to assert their legal rights.

The Cambodian companies are majority-owned by, and the Koh Kong plantation is operated by, Khon Kaen Sugar Ltd. (KSL), a Thai company. KSL has sold the sugar under contract to U.K. company Tate & Lyle Sugars, which in turn is owned by the American sugar conglomerate American Sugar Refining (ASR) (which markets Domino, C&H, and Redpath sugars).

Because the Cambodian court has been stalled, with the first hearing more than three years after the case was filed, ERI has assisted CLEC in pursuing additional efforts to secure the communities’ rights:

  • CLEC filed a complaint against Tate & Lyle with Bonsucro, a socially-responsible sugar industry effort
  • CLEC filed a complaint with the Thai National Human Rights Commission against KSL
  • CLEC and ERI jointly filed a complaint against ASR to the U.S. National Contact Point for the OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises

Finally, in March 2013, the communities, represented pro bono by law firm Jones Day, filed a lawsuit in U.K. court against Tate & Lyle claiming the right to the sugar produced from their land.

The situation has been investigated by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, and is one of the cases that is the focus of the Clean Sugar Campaign.

On June 20, 2013, the U.S. National Contact Point concluded the complaint against ASR; the company had decided to withdraw from the process because the communities refused to withdraw their lawsuit against Tate & Lyle.  The National Contact Point's Final Statement noted that the claims of human rights abuses were "substantiated," and called on ASR to develop a human rights policy that would address the issues in the complaint.  Then, on July 17, 2013, Bonsucro, a sugar cane industry initiative for responsible and sustainable sugar growing, suspended Tate & Lyle for failing to cooperate with an investigation into the villagers' complaints.

In 2015 the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand’s (NHRCT) released a final report of the investigation of the case. It found that the land grab violated the right to life, the right to self-determination, including the right to manage and benefit from natural resources, and the right to development of the affected villagers. The report states that KSL bears responsibility for the human rights violations, even if the company itself did not perpetrate the abuses, due to its decision to receive and benefit from the land concession where the violations occurred.

The NHRCT’s ground-breaking investigation represents an important step in promoting accountability for communities harmed by cross-border investments, and a potential model for the region on protecting and promoting extra-territorial human rights obligations (ETOs). 

Stories and blog posts on the Koh Kong plantation

Background and reports on the Koh Kong plantation

Cambodia court case materials

Thai National Human Rights Commission materials

U.S. OECD National Contact Point materials

Additional resources:

Photo courtesy of CLEC.