UN Panel Calls on Int’l Business Community to Take Stand on Myanmar Junta’s Abuses

By The Irrawaddy 13 May 2021

UN human rights experts on Wednesday urged international businesses to take a stand against the Myanmar regime’s human rights violations and put pressure on the coup leaders to halt their grave human rights violations across the country.

Amid pro-democracy supporters’ calls for urgent action to cut off foreign currency flows to the military junta, the human rights experts said that “businesses must uphold their human rights responsibilities.”

“While some businesses have reiterated their public support for the rule of law and human rights, and cut ties with the junta, many continue to engage in business with the military as if nothing has happened,” the experts from the UN working group on business and human rights were quoted as saying in a statement from the UN Human Rights Office. However, they did not mention any businesses by name.

The experts urged companies to act in line with the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to avoid contributing to rights violations, or becoming complicit in crimes if they continue to operate in Myanmar.

Surya Deva, vice chair of the UN working group on business and human rights, said, “Because the risk of gross human rights violations has greatly increased in Myanmar, action by states and human rights due diligence by business, and investors, should be rapidly and proportionately heightened.”

Following the military takeover on Feb. 1, nearly 50 foreign companies mostly from Western countries investing in Myanmar, including Coca-Cola, Heineken, Nestle, Unilever, Facebook and H&M, signed a statement expressing concern about the military takeover. However, Asian companies have largely remained silent.

Moreover, public campaigns to cut the coup leaders’ financial lifelines have intensified both in the country and abroad. Human rights groups have repeatedly asked oil and gas companies to cut ties with the military regime, as the sector earns Myanmar more than US$1.5 billion annually.

However, energy giants like Chevron of the US and Total of France remain reluctant to follow those demands. Chevron has intensively lobbied the US State Department and key congressional offices against sanctions, warning that they could disrupt its joint ventures in Myanmar. Total’s gas operation in Myanmar has been propping up the military junta by diverting funds from gas sales to offshore accounts instead of the government, according to documents accessed by French newspaper Le Monde.

“Businesses, both individually and collectively, should exert the maximum leverage on the military in Myanmar to halt what the High Commissioner for Human Rights has said may amount to crimes against humanity,” said Tom Andrews, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar.

The experts said the military’s economic interests, including access to arms and technology, remain largely untouched and unchallenged by other states, and businesses operating in the country.

“The revenues that the military earns from domestic and foreign businesses substantially enhance its ability and capacity to carry out these grave violations,” Andrews said.

The UN experts said that measures taken by businesses, such as suspension of payments and financial flows that may aid the perpetration of widespread and systematic human rights violations, should target the military and have the minimum possible negative impact on the rights of employees and the general population.

All states, including leaders of ASEAN and G20 countries, should take strong, decisive and coordinated action, and encourage their businesses operating in Myanmar to prevent further human rights violations, the experts added.

“There may come a point at which businesses might need to suspend operations or even consider [an] exit from the country if risks of involvement in human rights abuse cannot be reasonably managed, while doing so in a manner to safeguard the well-being of workers and affected communities,” Deva said.

This week, several international companies and organizations including Coca-Cola, McKinsey and Reuters moved out of Sule Square, a high-end office block in downtown Yangon, after human rights group Justice for Myanmar called on 18 tenants of the complex of offices and shops to stop supporting a military-linked business by renting space there. The complex was built on land owned by the military, according to the UN.

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