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Aung San Suu Kyi signals change in Burma, but investors should proceed with caution

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The rule of law is weak in Myanmar – as seen in the sectarian conflict that erupted in Rakhine last week – and the judiciary is far from independent. The military has a significant stake in many sectors of the economy, and human rights groups have shown conclusively that abusive practices such as forced labor are still widespread.

When the European Union partially lifted sanctions in April, it emphasized the importance for investors to adhere to the highest standards of business practices.

These include the UN Guiding Principles on business and human rights, which were approved unanimously by the UN Human Rights Council in June last year. Those standards also include the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and the EU’s new policy for corporate social responsibility, both of which draw on the UN Guiding Principles.

The Guiding Principles were the result of six years of research and consultations with many stakeholders during my mandate as UN special representative on Business and Human Rights.  With their adoption, governments have reaffirmed their obligations to protect against human rights abuses involving companies.

The Guiding Principles also clarify that all companies, including those operating in Myanmar, have a responsibility to respect human rights and conduct due diligence to ensure that their activities do not cause or contribute to harm, regardless of the conduct of the state.

In Myanmar’s case, conducting this due diligence on human rights poses a special challenge for companies because Myanmar’s government and local business have been closely intertwined. In such an environment, foreign businesses will need to undertake enhanced due diligence. This includes exercising caution about whom they obtain access to land from, how they gain that access, and how they conduct consultations with affected communities.

It also means ensuring that workers are able to form unions, are paid a fair, legal, living wage, and that no force is used in hiring workers or in their conditions at work.

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