Guiding Economic Growth through National Action Plans: Protect, Respect and Remedy

A unique United Nations commissioned academic research collaboration has issued recommendations on the prevention and mitigation of business-related human rights abuses in the Global South.


SMU Office of Research – On December 31, 2015, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Economic Community (AEC) was formally launched with the aim of leveraging the region’s US $2.6 trillion market and 622 million people to create one of the largest economies in the world. The AEC is already a major market for foreign investment. In 2014, ASEAN attracted US $136 billion in foreign direct investment (FDI), accounting for 11% of global FDI flows.

The region’s rapid economic development presents opportunities and challenges to countries and corporations alike. In 2012, the United Nations (UN) appointed a coalition of Asian and African academic institutions to formulate guidance on how to develop national action plans in the Global South (note 1) to protect human rights that may be impacted by business conduct. Their final report, submitted to the UN at the end of 2015, emphasises the fact that some human rights concerns in the Global South are remarkably different from those faced by the Global North (note 2) and require special attention and analysis.

“Our report makes it clear that guidance on implementing national action plans cannot have a one-size-fits-all approach,” says Mahdev Mohan, a Singapore Management University (SMU) Assistant Professor of Law and one of the two principal investigators in the coalition.

The CALS-SMU Coalition for National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights was jointly led by the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) at South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand and SMU’s Asian Business & Rule of Law Initiative, which Professor Mohan directs.

Involving and learning from stakeholders

The centrepiece of the coalition’s three-year investigation was two workshops held in Bali, Indonesia and Pretoria, South Africa, which focused on tapping into the perspectives of various Global South stakeholders on business and human rights. The workshops also aimed to identify individuals and organisations that can support the UN’s mission to embed national action plans on these issues in both regions.

“Significantly, most stakeholders [in the Bali workshop] were supportive of the idea of Asian countries implementing national action plans on business and human rights. By and large, there was also consensus that unprecedented economic growth in Asia driven by multinational corporations must go hand-in-hand with the promotion and protection of human rights,” says Professor Mohan.

One problem resulting from rapid economic growth that will benefit from a national action plan, he explains, is that of trans-boundary haze pollution. “Haze pollution has impaired the health of millions of people in the region. It has compromised the safety of aircraft, and has also damaged ASEAN’s regional economy. Haze pollution last year cost Singapore an estimated S$700 million in losses. The large quantities of carbon dioxide released from forest fires in Indonesia have also set back ASEAN’s efforts to mitigate global climate change,” he explains.

But this is only one of a multitude of issues that need to be addressed. Many migrant workers in Asia are subject to severe discrimination as well as the denial of freedom of movement and basic economic, social and cultural rights. In most cases, bilateral agreements also do not exist between Asian countries to adequately protect the rights of their workers in host countries.

Many indigenous communities face forced displacement from their lands by multinational companies without adequate consultation and compensation. Unsustainable land use by these companies can cause or contribute to environmental degradation, leading to adverse impacts on health, access to clean water and sources of livelihood. Finally, many victims of business-related human rights abuses often lack access to independent courts and commissions, or non-judicial grievance mechanisms.

The Bali workshop included stakeholders from government, business and civil society. Many believe that progressive businesses need to play a central role in developing national action plans in the region. Also, the concept of corporate social responsibility needs to shift from voluntary philanthropy to one that is based on an awareness of the important role businesses must play in protecting human rights.

Global South commonalities and differences

Asian stakeholders emphasised the importance of developing both regional and national action plans to protect human rights as they relate to business. But among African stakeholders, a stronger emphasis was placed on national plans as some stakeholders felt that the continent is too diverse for the development of regional plans at this stage. Nevertheless, the CALS-SMU coalition noted that economic integration is an objective of the African Union and that this needs to be kept in mind for the long-term.

African stakeholders stated that government officials tend to see national action plans as obstacles to investment when they relate to business and human rights. Because of this, civil society needs to play an important role in pushing for comprehensive policies. Also, progressive businesses in Africa may support the development of a national action plan if they see it as a means to stop local companies from exploiting cheap labour and thus undercutting them in the market.

The Pretoria workshop also emphasised that it was important for African businesses to strike a balance between endorsing gender equality and respecting cultural and traditional values within society. While the African Women’s Charter and the Southern African Development Community Protocol on Gender and Development stress that tradition and culture should not be allowed to impair the rights of women, a national action plan can further guide businesses on progressively influencing gender norms in African societies, said stakeholders.

Converting words into action

The CALS-SMU coalition released a set of recommendations to translate into practice UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which was endorsed in 2011. These principles are based on three “pillars”: the duty of the state to protect human rights, the responsibility of businesses to respect human rights, and the right of victims of business-related abuses to have access to remedy.

“Due to the unique economic, social and political realities of the Global South, existing remedies and grievance mechanisms that are available to victims of human rights abuses are often fragmented and not easily accessible,” says Professor Mohan. “In our report, we recommend that processes involving national action plans in the Global South should first identify gaps in existing legislative and regulatory frameworks and the reasons for the failure to enforce them.”

The CALS-SMU coalition represents the first collaboration between two universities in Asia and Africa where business and human rights issues are identified within each region and then brought together to present a collective Global South position on this topic, explains Professor Mohan. “It’s the first project of its kind where there is significant collaboration across two geographical regions to address a common issue,” he says.

“This cross-border coalition’s final report will inform the UN Working Group’s guidance to UN member states and other actors at the UN Human Rights Council and other forums to better ensure accountability for human rights violations in the context of business activities,” adds CALS director, Associate Professor Bonita Meyersfeld.

Going forward

Progress is being made. South Korea, Indonesia and the Philippines, for example, are in talks with relevant stakeholders to start the national action plans process. Malaysia’s national human rights institution, SUHAKAM, has released a strategic document to provide policy guidance for the formation of a national action plan. At the Bali workshop, a well-known member of the Myanmar Investment Commission, Professor Aung Thun Thet, announced the country’s intention to develop a national action plan. In Africa, Mauritius and Nigeria have reportedly begun developing national action plans, while national human rights institutions in Ghana, Mozambique, South Africa and Tanzania have begun capacity building and gap analysis on business and human rights issues. Research reveals that forward-thinking businesses and business associations in Africa and Asia also agree that sustainable development is necessary and has a crucial role to play in devising and implementing national action plans.

“I am convinced that the outcomes of this research report will inform the progressive update of our guidance document and assist the UN Human Rights Council and state parties to develop context-specific and sustainable national action plans that resonate with the nations of the Global South as much as they do with those of the North,” says Michael Addo, Professor of Law at the University of Exeter, and a member of the UN Business & Human Rights Working Group which had commissioned the CALS-SMU collaboration.

(Note 1) Global South – Made up of Africa, Latin America, and the developing Asia (including the Middle-East).
(Note 2) Global North – Made up of the United States, Canada, Western Europe and the developed parts of East Asia.

By Nadia El-Awady