Guest Post: Preferential trade terms for Burma, but what about human rights?

I am pleased to welcome this guest post from Alison Heron, who is currently the Myanmar Campaign Intern for EarthRights International in Thailand. Alison received her LLM in International Human Rights Law from the Irish Centre for Human Rights in 2012. Views expressed are her own.

Last week the Irish presidency of the European Union secured the ‘Generalised Scheme of Preferences’ status for Burma/Myanmar. The EU’s preferential scheme allows developing country exporters to pay lower duties on their exports to the EU, giving them vital access to EU markets and in turn contributing to their economic growth. Burma/Myanmar’s access to the scheme was withdrawn in 1997 in response to mass human rights violations, including the systematic use of forced labour.

Over the past two years the country has undergone a process of reform, which has seen the military step down from power and the first civilian government enter power in 49 years. In June 2012 the International Labour Organisation reported improvements with regard to forced labour and the EU has moved quickly to reinstate Burma/Myanmar into the scheme. In April 2013 the EU agreed to lift almost all of the trade, economic and individual sanctions against Burma/Myanmar.

Hillary_Clinton_and_Shwe_MannSimilar trade and investments reforms have been made around the world, including by the United States. However unlike the EU’s unconditional removal of trade sanctions, the United States administration’s ‘Reporting Requirements for Responsible Investment’ impose greater regulation and reporting requirements connected to new investment in Burma/Myanmar. The EU has made no move to issue binding reporting requirements or performance standards on investors.

Earlier this month, the World Economic Forum was held in Burma/Myanmar’s political capital Naypyidaw. The message of the week was that Burma/Myanmar is open for business. Investors from around the World are currently assessing the situation and corporations are beginning to move in on this ‘virgin market’. At the beginning of June, Coca-Cola opened a bottling plant in Burma/Myanmar for the first time in six decades and last week Unilever announced it’s plans to open a second plant in Burma/Myanmar, displaying confidence in the market.

Not all investors are as confident in the situation. In May, Vodafone and its partner, China mobile, withdrew their tender for a telecoms licence. Human rights groups have warned telecommunications companies of the risks and have lobbied to promote meaningful ‘human rights due diligence’ and adopt robust safeguards to prevent and address abuses. Digicel, a Jamaica-based telecommunications operator, owned by Irish telecoms entrepreneur Denis O’Brien has submitted it’s tender for the licence in Burma/Myanmar. The country has been seen as the world’s largest untapped telecoms market.

The situation in Burma/Myanmar has improved considerably since reforms began in 2011. As a result of long standing sanctions there has been very little Western investment in the country for many years. It is now ‘open for business’ but investors should remain cautious. There is no doubt that reforms are taking place but the result of such reforms is yet to be seen in much of the country. There are reports of continued environmental and human rights abuses relating to development projects around the country. Civil society and community groups have reported mass land grabs, a crackdown on protestors and other on-going abuses relating to development projects. Burma/Myanmar remains a high-risk environment with antiquated laws, high levels of corruption and little transparency.

The EU is now entering into negotiations with Myanmar over long-term trade and investment cooperation, including, potentially, a future Bilateral Investment Treaty. The European Commission has requested public comments on the future of European investment in Burma/Myanmar, and civil society has the opportunity to make the case that any future investment should be conditioned on basic human rights assurances. In May the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on large European companies investing in Myanmar to report on their human rights, workers’ rights, and environmental due diligence policies and procedures. This resolution is non-binding.

Enda-KennyA G8 partnership with Burma/Myanmar announced in June will aim to support continued economic reforms by providing political support and technical assistance in Burma/Myanmar’s implementation of international best practices in the extractive sector. Taoiseach Enda Kenny, as the EU presidency representative, will attend the G8 meeting in Fermanagh this week. As the current president of the EU, and having pushed for Burma/Myanmar’s preferential status, Ireland is in a position and has an opportunity to ensure environmental and human rights conditionality are attached to future EU trade policies with Burma/Myanmar.

Ireland has recently faced international criticism and has been labelled as a tax haven by the U.S Senate. Both the Irish Government and Irish civil society can play an important role in this process, ensuring that EU foreign policies do not negatively impact the reform currently taking place. It is essentially that Ireland uses this opportunity to take a lead role in lobbying for a human rights conditionality to be adopted in line with the relevant international standards, and to prove that Ireland is committed to the international human rights regime.

2 responses to “Guest Post: Preferential trade terms for Burma, but what about human rights?

  1. Too true Alison.

    The rush to tap the potential of the Burma/Myanmar market is very worrying. While there has been progress, the country is still at the beginning of a long path towards a democratic state founded on the rule of law – making the prospect of new trade and investment risky both for the enterprise as well as workers, affected communities and the environment. European companies doing business in Burma/Myanmar should adopt and apply report on their human rights, workers’ rights and environment due diligence policies and procedures, as well as their application and to publicly release those policies and procedures, as well as the reports resulting from the application of those policies and procedures. Would also be useful if the Commission ensured regular monitoring and public reporting of the commitments made by EU enterprises in light of internationally recognised CSR principles and guidelines, in line with the Communication on Corporate Social Responsibility, as well as any voluntary requirements which may be adopted unilaterally by EU enterprises as well as to define Human Rights Guidance for oil and gas sectors.

    In reality, respect for workers rights remains poor – as recognised in last week’s release by ITUC – See Page 23: link below.
    That report recommends that:

    Anti-union discrimination of all forms and at all times must be clearly prohibited in law and in practice, with sufficiently dissuasive sanctions;

    Labour laws must be amended to conform with international standards

    and Forced labour must be eliminated as soon as possible.

    As Maung Maung (General Secretary, Federation
    of Trade Unions – Myanmar) recently put it:
    “Let’s try to work together to form sustainable investment so we create an ethical economy.”

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