Since their unanimous endorsement by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) have become the global standard for preventing and addressing adverse human rights impacts of business activities. So far, the Guiding Principles have had a significant impact. Throughout the past decade, the UNGPs have gained extensive support from States, businesses and civil society. States and international organizations have adopted definite actions to promote and implement the UNGPs, and a number of companies have made them an integral part of their operations and strategies.

Globalization has improved market access to multinational corporations (MNCs), increasingly exposing them to new forms of transnational social movements. It has also given impetus to the discussion of the responsibilities of businesses in the field of human rights, especially in the South-East Asia region which continues to be one of the most economically dynamic regions in the world. The fast growth of the private sector’s activity and dominance in the region and its effects on human rights have sparked a debate about the roles and obligations of business. As a result, the private sector has emerged as one of the central stakeholders in the region’s human rights dialogue. Among the various actors, the OHCHR Regional Office for South-East Asia has committed to a wide range of initiatives as part of its mandate to lead the UN system’s business and human rights agenda.

At first, there were fears that Southeast Asian countries with rapidly developing extractive industries would have felt prey to the “resource curse”, when countries with abundant natural resources tend to have less economic growth than countries without these natural resources. Despite the concerns, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has made tremendous progress in the field of corporate social responsibility and human rights. As listed below, many countries have taken steps towards developing and implementing national action plans (NAPs) on human rights due diligence in the business sector.

2021 marked the tenth anniversary of the UN Human Rights Council’s endorsement of the UNGPs. In June 2021, during a stop-taking exercise, the UN Working Group acknowledged some persistent gaps relevant to the Asian region. They first noted that States and businesses have developed and applied ineffective measures to prevent human rights abuses and address their impacts, often because of the lack of meaningful engagement and social dialogue with workers and people affected by business activities. Secondly, they outlined that there are still significant barriers to guarantee access to remedy for victims. Lastly, they pointed to a lack of policy coherence at governmental and multilateral levels and in business practices is slowing and hampering the process towards a more sustainable and just future. UNGPs are relevant not only to set standards at the international level, but they also provide guidelines for States to develop their own National Action Plans, as was outlined by the Thai Representative. Especially after COVID-19 and developing countries, National Action Plans are critical tools given the low awareness of business and human rights agenda. Moreover, they play a key role in enhancing the scope for the commitment of all the actors involved and establishing remedy and grievance mechanisms to support the victims of business-related abuses.
This year has been an opportunity for Asian stakeholders to reflect and think for the way ahead.

In March 2021, the 2nd UN South Asia Forum on Business and Human Rights took place to raise awareness around business and human rights standards in South Asia. It aimed to explore linkages between the business and human rights agenda and the 2030 Agenda and to encourage peer-learning amongst governments, national employers’ organizations, trade unions, national human rights institutions (NHRIs), businesses, and civil society organizations (CSOs) in the region. In addition, the regional forum seeks to facilitate a strong and multi-stakeholder dialogue that will foster joint action to prevent, mitigate and remediate business-related human rights abuses and advance decent work in South Asia. During the second session, participants discussed many topics, including the impact of foreign legislation on mandatory human rights due diligence in South Asia, and focused on the situation in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Furthermore, various sessions were planned to address several issues, including rivers and pollution, the garment sector during COVID-19, and the rights of migrant workers.

Despite numerous signs of progress, there are still many gaps and obstacles that actors in Asia face. The only way to deal with the challenges that arise in Asia’s next decade of business and human rights will be to integrate top-down transformations with bottom-up ones. To guide global efforts on progressing BHR, the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights launched the Next Decade Project. Specifically focusing on the Asian region, the 10th Annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights will take place from the 29th November to the 2nd December 2021 to launch the roadmap for the next decade.

Asian countries having published a NAP on human rights due diligence in the business sector:

– Thailand’s cabinet adopted a National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights and launched it publicly in December 2019;
– In September 2021, Pakistan released its inaugural National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights (2021-2026);
– In October 2020, Japan also launched the Japan’s National Action Plan (NAP) on Business and Human Rights (2020-2025);
– In August 2018 the South Korean State Council adopted the Human Rights National Action Plan (2018-2022) which contains a chapter on business and human rights
– In December 2020, Taiwan published a Business and Human Rights National Action Plan

Asian countries that are developing a NAP:- The Indian Government formally announced that it will develop a National Action Plan (NAP) on business and human rights at the Business and Human Rights Forum in Geneva in November 2018. In February 2019, India published a draft NAP on Business and Human Rights;

– In Indonesia, there have been several initiatives on integrating business and human rights in a national action plan. In 2021, a process for the development of a National Strategy on Business and Human Rights was underway;
– In Malaysia, in June 2019 the Minister of Laws, YB Liew, formally announced a cabinet decision to launch a process to develop a business and human rights NAP;
– In April 2019 the Mongolian Government has formally appointed a 60 members Working Group to begin work on a National Action Plan on business and human rights. In November 2020, consultations to validate the draft national baseline assessment were held;
– Vietnam is in the process of developing a NAP, to be published by 2022

By Anna Mattedi

Anna Mattedi is a recent Master’s graduate in International and European Studies at the School of International Studies in Trento. During her semester abroad, she started being more interested in Asian issues, with a focus on EU-Asian relations. Currently she is doing a traineeship at the EU Delegation to the UN in Geneva in the human rights section.

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