Human Rights Risks
As Surya Deva, the Vice-Chair of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights commented on 12 May “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”. MCRB has contributed to collective discussions by companies and other stakeholders – both within Myanmar and internationally, including with the UN - on human rights risks and how mitigate them. We have also given feedback to individual companies on navigating the business and human rights dilemmas they face, such as those outlined by EuroCham’s Garment Group.
What human rights ‘leverage’ does business have in the current crisis? MCRB has sought to facilitate collective action by both international and Myanmar businesses, both concerning their own spheres of influence, and the wider social and political context. On 19 February, in response to a request from some companies, we published a joint Statement by Concerned Businesses Operating in Myanmar. This focused on the importance to companies and society of the rule of law and respect for human rights, democracy and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression and association. Over 230 companies signed the statement, around two-thirds of them operating only in Myanmar, the rest multinational. The situation has deteriorated significantly since mid-February, and we are no longer actively seeking company sign-up. But any company still wishing to align publicly with the sentiments in the 19 February statement should email email@example.com.
Although we have put plans for a 5th Myanmar Digital Rights Forum on hold, another area where we continue to facilitate collective and multistakeholder action is on ‘digital rights’ such as privacy, access to the internet and freedom of expression online. Pre-coup, on 28 January, Data Privacy Day, we highlighted the importance of data protection. We have consistently advocated since 2015 for the flaws in Myanmar’s legal framework for ICT to be fixed, so that companies are able to meet their responsibility to respect human rights, including the right to privacy. Unfortunately, the increase in internet shutdown and website blocking since 2019, increased online surveillance, and since 1 February the frequent use of Article 505a of the Penal Code to prosecute users of social media have led to further deterioration in digital rights. These issues are of concern to all ICT users and to responsible ICT businesses, as were the proposals in February’s draft cybersecurity law. We encouraged businesses to identify provisions in the draft law which would undermine their ability to respect human rights, particularly the right to privacy, and to highlight these to the regulator.
Elements of the draft law, including on personal data protection, and ‘fake news’, appear instead to have been included in amendments to the Electronic Transactions Law (ETL). A consolidated version of the ETL is available in EN and MM on our website. We encourage everyone to familiarise themselves with new Myanmar legal obligations to protect personal data, particularly when responding to broad demands from the authorities for personal data, and to challenge those which are not legally compliant.
On 15 May, to mark two months of mobile data shutdown, we facilitated a statement together with the Global Network Initiative, its member companies and others. This highlights that lack of access to mobile data severely impacts the rights of Myanmar phone users, and that the current ‘whitelisting’ of a limited number of apps is discriminatory, and will retard Myanmar’s economy and development. Again, any company or organisation with an interest in seeing Myanmar’s entire population fully back online and who wants to join the statement should email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Although we have had to pause or abandon most other activities – particularly those which involved government engagement – we have also stayed in touch as far as possible with our NGO and civil society partners in addition to our business contacts. We have shared views on operating constraints, priorities and future plans, against the uncertain background which we all face. Since last year we have also been discussing with various stakeholders whether we can relaunch a UN Global Compact Local Network in Myanmar. This is still on our agenda. The last 100 days have particularly highlighted the need for companies to work out what the UNGC’s ‘Business for Peace’ initiative means in Myanmar’s current context(s).
As MCRB considers how to move forward, one area of continued focus will be promotion of the ‘elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation’ (Principle 6 of the UN Global Compact) including disability. In January, we held a second joint workshop with Access Israel on disability, this one focussed on assistive technologies. Inter alia, this highlighted the importance of access to mobile internet for persons with disabilities, both inside and outside the workplace.
Another area on which we hope to continue to work, together with partners, is the environment, including biodiversity, business and human rights. We fear that Myanmar’s natural resources will be increasingly under threat from exploitative and damaging extraction, much of it illegal, and that local communities will have difficulties preventing this, in the face of a weak planning and regulatory framework.