ASEAN works on regional human rights plan for businesses

ASEAN works on regional human rights plan for businesses

Tom Abke

The 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are working together to form a regional plan to guide private businesses on how to protect human rights and promote fairness.

ASEAN representatives met in Bangkok, Thailand, June 4-6, 2018, for the Interregional Dialogue: Sharing Good Practices on Business and Human Rights. Hosted by ASEAN’s Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), the talks focused on human rights challenges facing business and produced proposals on how to meet them.

About 130 participants included representatives from all 10 ASEAN states, the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights and other U.N. agencies, the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency, Australia Human Rights Commission, and various nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs).  Thai Minister of Justice Prajin Juntong was among the keynote speakers.

“Conducting business that respects human rights can create a culture of fairness,” Prajin said, “and decrease social disparities in many aspects such as decreasing disputes between employer and employee, minimizing environmental problems that affect health and utilizing natural resources that will not affect the local communities.”

Prajin added that his government is committed to the implementation of the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) and that he encourages other ASEAN members to do the same to improve the health of the regional economy.

The 31 UNGPs articulate the U.N.’s Protect, Respect and Remedy framework for human rights and transnational business.

Eliminating human rights risks within product supply chains received prominent coverage at the dialogue, both in a speech by Jaco Cilliers, policy and program chief for Asia Pacific at the U.N.’s Development Program, and in ASEAN’s reporting of the event.

These problems gained attention in recent decades when transnational corporations Nike, Apple and Foxconn were accused of ignoring human rights abuses at Indo-Pacific factories within their supply chains, according to Richard Karmel of global auditor Mazars, writing for corporate watchdog digital magazine, Ethical Corporation. Karmel described the UNGPs as “authoritative guidance for businesses to understand their responsibilities to respect human rights.”

“Supply chains stand out as one of the challenges in the implementation of the UNGPs,” stated ASEAN’s news release for the dialogue. “Big multinational companies engage with different suppliers in several tiers, and it is difficult to ensure that the UNGPs are observed in the operations of each tier. Collective actions should be the way forward to address the adverse human rights impact from business activities.”

Cilliers praised Thailand for its progress toward implementing the guiding principles, notably through its Thai National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights, a first in the region, which he said could stand as an example for other Indo-Pacific countries.

“National Human Rights Institutions, CSOs [civil society organizations] and businesses will be key partners in providing feedback to governments on their plans to implement the U.N. Guiding Principles,” Cilliers said. “With AICHR in the driver’s seat, we will achieve regional buy-in and sustained commitment.”

A group of CSOs participating in the dialogue, including OXFAM and the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact, concluded the event by offering “ways forward for AICHR. These included a regional action plan to implement the UNGPs, a stream of information covering AICHR’s progress in working with governments and stakeholders, engagement with other human rights workers in the Indo-Pacific, and a code of conduct for future meetings on the same or related topics to “ensure inclusivity, diversity in views, constructive dialogues and debate in an environment of mutual respect.”

Tom Abke is a FORUM contributor reporting from Singapore.