In Southeast Asia, business activity has been a crucial enabler of economic dynamism and one of the main reasons for the region’s prosperity. However, corporate activity in the region has been linked to several human rights violations. Thailand has been the first country in Asia to have a stand-alone plan on Business and Human Rights, and its first National Action Plan (NAP) was adopted on 29 October 2019. After regional consultations during the past few years, four key areas were identified: 1) labour; 2) community, land, natural resource, and environment; 3) human rights defenders; 4) cross border investment and multinational enterprises.
In Thailand, the process started in 2016 when during a Universal Periodic Review (UPR), the country received a recommendation to develop and implement a NAP on business and human rights. Afterwards, the Rights and Liberties Protection Department of the Ministry of Justice presented several actions to implement the UNGPs on Business and Human Rights in Thailand. At the national level, a national committee was established to prescribe, prepare, monitor, and analyze the implementation of the NAP. Afterwards, the country undertook regional consultations to understand region-specific business and human rights circumstances in its four regions. The National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRCT) was the first to submit a plan to the cabinet to include measures for guaranteeing the accountability of Thai corporations to respect human rights, including in their overseas investment. In mid-2017, the Thai Royal Government formally announced the policy on business and human rights.
In 2018, the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights undertook a ten-day mission to Thailand, where they engaged in an open dialogue with various stakeholders, including government, civil society organizations and businesses on initiatives, opportunities and challenges to implement the UNGPs. The UN Working Group was informed on the signs of progress, but they noted that further efforts would be needed to ensure an inclusive process. The officials’ aim was also to assess whether the government’s anti-trafficking efforts have been effective, especially in the seafood sector. Indeed, Thailand’s multibillion-dollar seafood industry has been under strict international scrutiny in the past few years. Forced labour was discovered on both fishing vessels and land-based processing facilities, according to investigations. The UN Working Group suggested that the NAP also addressed modern slavery and human trafficking in businesses, including seafood, manufacturing and tourism. They further called for more attention to be given to the access to remedy and the gender dimensions, noting that it links with other relevant initiatives such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In addition, the Working Group called on Thailand to better protect the civic space, especially human rights defenders.
After the visit, Thailand announced its first NAP in June 2018. However, despite the consultations with the Thai BHR Network, some civil society organizations expressed concerns over the following months of feeling excluded from the process. To this end, CSOs mobilized and sent an open letter to the Rights and Liberties Protection Department (RLPD), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRCT) and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) presenting their worries. In response to this, the Ministry of Justice collaborated more closely with civil society organizations to develop a national baseline assessment to identify main gaps and priority areas for action. Finally, at the beginning of 2019, the Government of Thailand circulated a final draft for public comments.
The responsibility to implement the NAP on Business and Human Rights has been given to agencies under different sectors, for which they must comply with the directions assigned in the plan. It was decided to divide the implementation process into two categories: short-term and long-term. The short-term implementation has a timeframe of two years (2019-2020) because it focuses on urgent projects, such as promoting the implementation of the NAP and UNGPs among large-scale businesses to set examples for others; and selecting a pilot model from business/state enterprise as a role model. These activities were carried out by the Ministry of Justice. The long-term implementation has a timeframe of four years (2019-2022) for activities that require time to be implemented or are constant, such as organizing annual ASEAN conference to disseminate the NAP and UNGPs across different sectors; exchanging good practices between countries in the ASEAN region; conducting Training of Trainers on business and human rights to various sectors; and developing an application to receive complaints of cases related to business and human rights. In this case, the execution of the actions was under the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and all relevant agencies designated by the NAP.
Despite their efforts, Thai authorities persist in failing to safeguard human rights defenders from retaliation, and have failed to stop using strategic lawsuits to prevent public engagement (SLAPP). For example, a delegation of UN experts criticized Thammakaset’s persistent exploitation of court proceedings to harass and silence human rights defenders who spoke out against its abusive and exploitative labour practices in March 2020. Among the various targeted activists by retaliatory lawsuits, there is the former National Human Rights Commissioner Angkhana Neelapaijit.
(UNDP video on the process of BHR in Thailand: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wcem9bp3h7s&t=343s)
Featured Image – Ryan Tang