human rights & business (and a few other things)

Challenges ahead in Burma

One can only rejoice at the recent developments that have occurred in Burma (Myanmar) with Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), winning the byelections. Though the road to democracy will be long, it is no surprise that the EU is now considering lifting some of the sanctions against Burma. The United States and Australia have announced their intention to do the same thing.

Businesses are already blossoming in Burma and if the sanctions were to be lifted, the business opportunities would further expand. Unsurprisingly, British Prime Minister David Cameron brought a business delegation along during his historic visit to Burma last Friday.

It is an understatement to say that companies that will invest in Burma in the near future will face significant human rights challenges. Burma currently ranks 149th in the UN Development Index and second to last in the latest Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International. In his 2011 report, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar mentioned the fact that despite the sanctions a number of multinational corporations, including European and American ones, were already operating in the country. He also pointed to several business projects such as the building of gas and oil pipelines and of a deep sea port and added: “Communities need to be consulted in a meaningful way, which does not appear to have been done in most cases.”

Business and human rights aficionados of course remember the landmark Unocal case  before US courts and the perhaps less well known proceedings against Total  in Belgium for the same set of facts involving various human rights violations including murder, torture, rape and forced labour.

Burma’s opening to the world represents a fantastic opportunity for Burmese people to improve their lives and businesses can play a significant role in this. But multinational corporations should have policies in place so that human rights are not forgotten in the process.

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