Helping US investors understand the rights challenges in Myanmar

19 March 2016
Helping US investors understand the rights challenges in Myanmar
New foreign investors need to understand the environment in terms of workers' rights. Photo: Hong Sar/Mizzima

Efforts are being made to help US companies interested in investing in Myanmar to understand the ongoing challenges in terms of human rights in the country.
In this interview with Mizzima’s Aung Thura, Miss Claudia Flores from the International Human Rights Clinic talks about the purpose of the group’s programme, during a visit to Myanmar in the middle or March.
Firstly, what is the purpose of this presentation and discussion on US business reporting requirements for Myanmar?
Today, we wanted to have a discussion with some of the groups, NGOs and other advocates who are working here in Myanmar on workers right, supporting labour movements and human rights. We came because the University of Chicago Law School International Human Rights Clinic has been doing a research project on the legal efficacy of the US reporting requirements for US investment in Myanmar. The reporting requirements are meant to ensure that US investment is having a positive impact on the human rights of workers here in Myanmar so the clinic has been looking at how effective are the reporting requirements and how can they be improved.
Is it just a paper or thesis, what is the importance behind this reporting?
Well, the clinic takes on projects and does legal research in partnership with organisations so we have been working with the Solidarity Centre here in Myanmar and the hope is our recommendations and our legal research will be useful for advocates who are working here on the ground. We have also submitted comments to the US State Department. The US State Department opened a comments period a few months ago for civil society and academic institutions about what their perspective was on the US reporting requirements and so the clinic submitted a comment suggesting that the reporting requirements be continued and making some recommendations for how they can be improved.
So the US Government is supporting Myanmar’s ongoing reforms?
The US Government is wanting to ensure US companies have a positive impact on human rights so these reporting requirements are meant to support that.
So this report is totally finished?
What we have done is complete comments to the State Department giving our recommendation for how the reports could be improved we made several suggestions one was that the reporting requirements could be more specific and provide more guidance to companies on what information they should provide so that civil society can really use these requirements to help monitor. We also made the recommendation that the definition of the companies that are required to report be clarified to ensure that important industries are captured like the garment industry and in this trip we have used it to really just to get know the environment a bit and to talk to some of the workers groups and unions, and NGO to find out a bit about the challenges they face. And when we return to our clinic we will continue to work on the issue.
How many US companies in Myanmar did you watch and study?
We simply reviewed the reports that are actually available on the State Department website and really looked to see what the reports provided. So some of the reports are very detailed and some are less detailed and we also analyses the US domestic legal scheme to see what the reporting requirements required and how the sanction mechanism functions.
According to your study, did you see some US companies in Myanmar that break the current US policy and did you see the some US companies concern in contributing to human rights, worker rights, corruption, environmental and the other potential problems?
Our report was merely to look at what the companies were reporting. We did not look to how they are actually behaving Myanmar. So we do not know how the US companies are actually working here but we know what they say they are going to do and we hope that the mechanism can help civil society to do the monitoring.
I have learnt the key priority for the US embassy is to increase the US trade and investment, so do you think this can bring substantial benefits for both countries?
Absolutely it can benefit US companies by making sure they are operating in a responsible way and it can benefit Myanmar by having US companies come and create jobs and develop industry but to do so in a way that respects human rights and both sides benefit.
What are the important assessments of US companies in Myanmar?
The recommendation we are making is that US companies provide as much detail as they can about their human rights mechanisms, grievance mechanisms and really work with civil society and unions to make sure they really have a partnering relationship.
Myanmar has a new government coming in to power. Yet one senses that there are still concerns about US companies doing business in the country? Would you say there is still a problem?
Again, not having seen specific situations where there might be problems that is exactly what we think the reporting requirements can avoid, can ensure US companies are acting in a responsible way and can ensure they do not contribute to human rights violations.
One of the Myanmar presidential nominees is still on the US blacklist. How will the US handle this if he becomes, as expected, Vice President No. 1?
That is beyond the scope of the report. Unfortunately I do not know.
The US sanctions to Myanmar is still exist but this will finish end of this March, at that time, US businesses will request to the US government not to extend, do you think is it free for Myanmar?
The US State Department opened a comments period so there were many submissions to the US State Department some recommending the reporting requirements continue and some recommending that they stop so I don’t know in which direction it going to go I don’t know what decision the Statement Department will make but after our research and obviously our primary concern is for human rights we believe it is in everyone’s benefit to continue the reporting requirements and to improve them.
How do you see the future relationship of the US and Myanmar in terms of business regulations?
I think it can be a positive one as long as there are carful steps forward in which the human rights and economic development of workers are actually being considered.
What are the main concerns of US companies in Myanmar?
I’m afraid I don’t know because I am not part of the business sector. What we’ve heard from NGOs and civil society organisation here is that there are still some steps to be taken in promoting the rule of law and ensuring and that workers are really able to enforce their human rights which is why we think US companies can make a contribution to that and set a standard and really provide an example of how there a can be good relationship between the corporate employer and workers.
What would you say are the barriers faced by US employers in Myanmar?
I really can’t say I am not an expert here on conditions of business in Myanmar. I can simply say that US companies very successfully in many other environments have good human rights protections and good monitoring mechanisms so this is certainly something they can do here in Myanmar.
So this report has raised some awareness of US companies’ entry into Myanmar for the future?
Yes, and the State Department also has a relationship with these companies to make sure they understand what their requirements are and how they are supposed to be behave.
Is there anything you would like to add?
These sort of reporting requirements when they are done effectively can be very useful ensuring there is a good response to the kinds of human rights issues that can occur when there is a lack of monitoring and having met with groups here there is a lot of interest and commitment in ensuring that the business sector develops in way that respects human rights.