In partnership with Institute for Human Rights and Business,
With support from Ericsson and General Electric Foundation
Burma/Myanmar is undergoing change and foreign investors who have stayed out of the country are now keen to explore opportunities.
The UN’s Guiding Principles for the implementation of the ‘Protect, Respect, Remedy’ framework on business and human rights demonstrate how they can operate in ways consistent with international human rights standards.
Political and economic changes are unfolding rapidly in Burma/Myanmar although the reform process is at an early stage. These developments are leading to enhanced engagement with the international community. The re-emergence of resource-rich Burma/Myanmar in the global economy, together with the political changes taking place, represents an important opportunity in the area of business and human rights.
Foreign investors who have stayed out of Burma/Myanmar are now keen to explore opportunities. Several companies and governments would like to ensure that the impact of their investments is positive, and that their conduct does not harm human rights. The UN’s Guiding Principles for the implementation of the ‘Protect, Respect, Remedy’ framework on business and human rights provide a model for how they can operate in ways consistent with international human rights standards. The conference aims to encourage businesses to work collectively and develop a set of principles to ensure that their conduct takes into account Burma’s/Myanmar’s specific situation.
The political and economic changes in Burma/Myanmar over the past year have been dramatic. The release of hundreds of political prisoners, the holding of successful by-elections in April 2012, the inclusion of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Parliament following its electoral success, and the initiation of dialogue with ethnic groups that were engaged in conflict with the Union Government, have led other governments to lift or suspend the sanctions they had imposed on Burma/Myanmar.
Foreign investors who have stayed out of the country are now keen to explore possibilities. Both the Government and the Opposition have called for “responsible investment”. The Government has shown interest in participating in the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI) and in mid-December 2012 announced the formation of a committee, headed by Minister U Soe Thein, to develop a work plan and take steps to apply for EITI Candidate status. A new foreign investment law has been passed and labour reforms have been initiated.
Representatives of international and local business, civil society experts from Burma/Myanmar and abroad, as well as policy-makers from governments met at Wilton Park to discuss the challenges in conducting “responsible investment”. The consensus was that the political changes are necessary, desirable, positive, and exceptional. The mood was tentatively optimistic, while candidly pointing out the real problems Burma/Myanmar still faces. These include slow and opaque bureaucratic processes, lack of an independent and capable judiciary, armed conflict between the army and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), intra-ethnic suspicion, and inter-communal violence in the Rakhine state. Some also noted a general lack of awareness among international investors and incomplete information about local businesses and their operational practices. Businesses can begin by looking to the UN Guiding Principles (GPs) for the implementation of the ‘Protect, Respect, Remedy’ framework for promoting business and human rights.
Significant investment will be needed to build the capacity of Burma/Myanmar’s institutions, including reforming laws, legal processes and practices to strengthen the rule of law, improve bureaucratic management, strengthen civil society, protect human rights defenders, including trade union leaders, and ensure free consultation based on the principles of non-discriminatory participation and inclusiveness. This applies not only to governments and development agencies, but also businesses that are considering investment in Burma/Myanmar.