There are perhaps few ironies in 2016 more powerful than a human rights conference in Qatar. The West Asian country continues to be pilloried for creating infrastructure for the football World Cup in 2022 on the backs of slave-like treatment of guest workers, their frequent injuries and deaths. This is quite beside a compelling sideshow, most notably led by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, over corruption charges to secure that event from FIFA, the much-discredited global governing body of soccer.
It’s also a necessary irony in an Asia awash with human rights challenges linked to economic activity—which sometimes masquerades as national pride. The first Asia Regional Forum on Business and Human Rights, held in the Qatari capital Doha over 19-20 April, attempted to project and discuss such realities.
In one way the event, held under the aegis of UN’s Working Group on Business and Human Rights, could be said to be an attempt by Qatar to counter a public relations disaster and its attempt to brush its human rights record under the magic carpet of infrastructure and sporting showbiz. Among other things, such brushing away even included Nepal’s recalling its ambassador to Qatar, Maya Kumari Sharma, in 2013 after she highlighted the plight of Nepali guest workers in Qatar. She famously likened Qatar to an “open jail" for its abusive labour practices. Whatever the reason, Qatar has bitten the human rights bullet—the event even had a Qatari minister in attendance—and alongside, has, in a welcome corollary, attempted to drag Asia with it.
Besides all the soft-pedalled diplomacy associated with any UN event, the regional forum had a remarkable intent. It began with a briefing on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, endorsed by the assembly in 2011 and now the global how-to (I’ve written about it extensively in these columns). That quickly opened out into sessions on grievance mechanisms for project-affected communities, rights of migrant workers and the benefits of businesses reporting on human rights to manage risks.
What I liked in particular was the region- and theme-specific approach to the meeting that covered practically every major economy and economic activity with transnational implication. Several hundred attendees, including from businesses (Adidas, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Repsol, Coca Cola and others) and multilateral and trade organizations (among them, International Finance Corporation, Japan’s JETRO), lawyers (including from the International Commission of Jurists and American Bar Association, several influential human rights activists and labour and community representatives (from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and other countries) also broke it down to challenges specific to Central Asia, West Asia, South Asia and South-East Asia.
I’d give my bleeding heart to see a similar conference in India touching upon so many crucial human rights issues: “protecting and respecting the rights" of migrant workers in countries of origin and countries of destination; such rights in the context of investments in land; and the garments sector. We could do with a focus, as during the Doha event, on Righting the wrong: seeking criminal accountability for corporate human rights abuses in Asia—indeed, it’s well past the time someone bells that thematic cat in India.
I would, as they did in the regional forum, add sessions on defending human rights defenders (an urgent issue across much of industrializing and mineral-rich India); human rights due diligence; indigenous peoples’ rights in the context of businesses impacting them; and access to judicial remedy. Qatar, in a burst of evident penitence, even permitted a session titled Mega sporting events in Asia & their impact on human rights. A current global buzz, the work-in-progress legally binding instrument to hold businesses responsible for human rights violations, also found place.
At one level, it would be easy to dismiss the Doha gathering as merely symbolic, yet another government- and UN-stage-managed event, another jamboree for the professional seminarist. But I prefer to think of it as another emphatic step towards greater awareness of local and regional issues, human rights related to business and a cross-border networking of stakeholders. As I keep evangelizing, alongside the globalization of capital and markets, businesses and governments must also accept the globalization of information, awareness, responsibility and liability.
It must come home sharply, even to an India currently in the throes of human rights being conflated with lack of patriotism by senior ministers, and where the interests of project-affected communities are often jettisoned as if they do not exist in India’s economy, let alone India’s polity.
Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business, runs on Fridays.
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