Open Letter to EU Foreign Ministers - Human Rights Essential to Trade & Investment with Myanmar

Submission, 20 April 2012

Today, IHRB's patron Mary Robinson and IHRB's chair Prof. John Ruggie, submitted an open letter to European Union (EU) Foreign Ministers and the EU High Representative on the need for human rights to be positioned prominantly in any current or future talks with Myanmar on the EU's trade and investment relationship.  The full letter can be read below.

On behalf of the Institute for Human Rights and Business, we are writing to urge you and your fellow European Foreign Ministers to make clear that respect for international human rights standards is integral to future trade with and investment in Myanmar.

For a start, that means adhering to relevant international standards such as the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which were unanimously endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in June 2011 and strongly supported by the European Union throughout the process of their development and adoption.

Upcoming European Union discussions on easing economic sanctions in response to the dramatic changes in the country following recent elections are indeed vitally important to the country’s hopeful steps towards reform, democracy and sustainable economic development.

As you know, new investors will likely face many complex challenges when sanctions policies are eased. For example, an unstable security situation requires well-trained security forces that comply with international standards. Another major risk is uncertainty around land acquisition and use. There is an urgent need for processes to ensure that the rights of customary and legal owners and users of land are respected. When land is acquired, every effort must be made not to forcibly evict inhabitants and before relocation or acquisition to ensure full consultation and prompt and adequate compensation. Companies should conduct due diligence to avoid involvement with business partners that pose serious legal risks, or have charges against them.

Moreover, it is essential to take into account the poorly regulated labour environment, and the importance of recognising the rights of free peaceful assembly, free association, and collective bargaining; the need for a strengthened domestic business sector, and to avoid corrupt practices in business operations. Finally, it is imperative to ensure that new investment does not perpetuate existing inequities, but instead provides equal opportunity for all.

The Government of Myanmar has the obligation to regulate new and existing foreign investment in a fair and non-discriminatory manner. Its actions over the coming months and years will be key in avoiding the "resource curse" faced by many countries blessed with abundant natural resources because poor governance of revenues can have adverse impact on state finances, limiting and restricting the state’s ability to protect human rights. For their part, foreign investors will have to proceed in a more accountable and transparent manner as well.

The opportunity for a new democratic beginning in Myanmar requires responsible actions on the part of all stakeholders. As EU Foreign Ministers discuss conditions for lifting sanctions and EU Member States’ responses to greater openness in Myanmar, the Institute for Human Rights and Business urges the European Union to use its powers, and those of its Member States, to adopt an explicit requirement for companies investing in Myanmar to adhere to international standards and operate in ways that support, rather than undermine respect for human rights.

This would include coherent actions pursuant to trade and investment policies, development assistance, lending, and export credit among others. The European Investment Bank should be encouraged to take a leadership role amongst multilateral development banks in ensuring that any projects financed in Myanmar involving the private sector include explicit human rights requirements. Businesses planning to invest should conduct initial human rights impact assessments and on-going due diligence in line with the UN Guiding Principles, consulting with local and international civil society, academia, officials, and independent experts.

The growing momentum to promote investment in Myanmar must be matched by commitments from states to fulfill their international legal obligations and from corporations to meet their responsibility to respect human rights.

Yours sincerely,

Mary Robinson, Patron
Institute for Human Rights and Business
Former President of Ireland &
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
John Ruggie, Chair
Institute for Human Rights and Business
Former UN Special Representative on
Business and Human Rights

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