The right to effective remedy – the ‘third pillar’ of the United Nations Guiding Principles on business and human rights (UNGPS) – is already a fundamental human right. If realized, the right would alleviate business-related human rights abuses and possibly render unnecessary the Forum in November. The international community must make clear that access to remedy is the priority and that non-binding arrangements and other guidelines are secondary to this legal obligation.

Although the international community has made progress encouraging companies to respect and States to protect human rights, access to remedy must underpin these UNGP ‘pillars’, particularly in developing or transitional states like Myanmar. Progress notwithstanding, legal accountability and access to remedy require international regulation.

The UNGPs are an important breakthrough. But reducing them to three distinct ‘pillars’ obfuscates the central problem in many developing or transitional states: access to remedy in a dysfunctional national legal system that lacks independence. In these contexts, remedy should not be conceived as one of three separate pillars: it must be the foundation that holds the entire structure together.

Investment in Myanmar has long been associated with human rights abuse. Ethnic armed conflicts are fuelled by competition for natural resources such as jade and hydropower that result in land grabs. Foreign investors, often in joint ventures with military-owned or crony companies, have been involved in serious human rights abuses in the past. These groups still control the economy and human rights violations associated with economic development, such as land confiscation and displacement, continue today. Even where a investor intends to respect human rights, they may operate in a Special Economic Zone or an industrial park developed in violation of human rights. As a result, people associate investment with the military, human rights abuses, and impunity. Even the current Rohingya refugee crisis, while not caused by business related human rights abuse, looks likely to result in them.

Myanmar does not provide adequate access to remedy for victims of business related human rights abuses. Myanmar’s decades of authoritarian rule have systematically weakened the judiciary and compromised the independence of its legal system. The government is unable or unwilling to take appropriate steps to ensure, through judicial, administrative, legislative or other appropriate means, that when such abuses occur within its territory those affected can obtain justice.

The judicial system in Myanmar is under-resourced, lacks capacity and is corrupt, particularly at the township level where most people access it. Lawyers do not have an official independent bar association. The current legal body is headed by the Attorney General and has punished its members for taking on contentious cases. Many lawyers lack capacity and are ineffective. The executive branch, powerful crony businessmen and the country’s military and security apparatus, maintain improper influence, over the judiciary especially in politically sensitive cases – a category that includes business related human rights abuses. Fair trials are uncommon. As a result, people do not trust the judicial system. Yet, into this accountability void billions of dollars of new investment flows.

The Attorney General’s Office, the Supreme Court and the NLD government have all signalled their commitment to reform in line with the rule of law and rights. Lawyers are emboldened and increasingly willing to take on tough cases with less fear for their careers. However, political and legal obstacles render criminal or civil litigation unlikely to hold powerful actors accountable. Overcoming impunity requires generational change, reform of legal education, increased capacity building and continued support from the international community.

Non-judicial mechanisms like administrative procedures, national human rights commissions and ombudspersons can play a complementary role where the judiciary may lack resources or independence. But they can only be effective if the mechanisms are compliant with due process standards and can provide remedy. Unfortunately, Myanmar’s National Human Rights Commission as presently constituted is not capable of providing remedy and has failed as an independent human rights institution. It has failed to meet the criteria put forward in the Paris Principles and has been widely criticised for a lack of impact.

Businesses in Myanmar also have a responsibility to facilitate non-State-based procedures, such as operational grievance mechanisms. These mechanisms are perceived to improve community relations where lack of access to remedy can result in unaddressed grievances, protests and violent confrontation. They can help to improve access to remedy and reparation where business has caused or contributed to adverse impacts.

International organizations have begun to work with Myanmar to develop a National Action Plan (NAP) to implement the UNGPs. They hope to build the capacity of key partners on business and human rights issues and develop a baseline assessment. The development of a NAP should focus on access to remedy at all levels. It should address impunity, examine the legal obstacles – including the harassment of human rights defenders – and include measures to ensure the courts are able and willing to hold business accountable for human rights abuses. Non-judicial mechanisms should not be a platform for the government to make non-binding commitments to human rights.

As access to remedy has been the ‘forgotten’ pillar, in practice the UNGPs have made little difference to those whose human rights are violated in the context of business activity where courts or non-judicial mechanisms do not provide justice. Alone, initiatives undertaken to implement the UNGPs will not ensure access to remedy where the rule of law is weak, the legal system underdeveloped, and the judiciary unable to perform its duties independently. Where states are unwilling or unable to fulfil their human rights obligations, a binding treaty is necessary to fill the accountability gap.

The corporate duty to respect human rights is meaningless unless there is access to remedy when companies fail to follow the law. Likewise, the state duty to protect fails unless victims are able to review and challenge the conduct of the state ensuring it meets national and international standards. The UNGPs will have little impact unless they improve access to remedy for human rights abuses.

Daniel Aguirre is a senior lecturer at Greenwich University. He has spent the last 4 years in Myanmar as an international legal advisor for the International Commission of Jurists, implementing a Judicial Reform Project that focused on Business and Human Rights.

This article first appeared in the Cambridge Business and Human Rights Law Journal Blog and is available here: 


Yesterday I was asked by the Independent and the Myanmar Times to comment on the Pope’s visit to Myanmar and his use of the term Rohingya. Here is my response:

The Pope was damned if he did and damned if he did not say the word Rohingya. Although it is disappointing that he did not refer to the Rohingya by name, his visit brought attention to the human rights violations against them – calling on Myanmar to “respect the rights of all who call this land their home” – and hopefully avoided further inflaming religious intolerance amongst hard-line Buddhist nationalists waiting to pounce on language they find unacceptable.

That the international community have declined to address human rights violations against minorities and especially the Rohingya is nothing new: they long ago sacrificed the Rohingya’s right to identity in the name of engagement, particularly to ensure their ability to invest and trade. It is only the inevitable humanitarian crisis that has put pressure on the international community to act.

It is up to the diplomats in Yangon, the international community and especially neighbouring countries to use their influence with the gov’t to halt violations of human rights and protect minorities in Myanmar. It is an indictment of their previous efforts that we place so much emphasis on the Pope’s intervention.

Most of all, national leadership is required; Myanmar’s public intellectuals, religious leaders and voices from civil society need to promote a more inclusive, tolerant version of a national identity that respects human rights.

The Independent’s coverage of the controversy is here:

The Myanmar Times coverage is here:






On Monday evening I was interviewed on Al Jazeera news and asked to comment on the human rights violations that have lead to the humanitarian crisis and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people in Myanmar. Here are my answers:

1: Bob Geldof has returned his Freedom of Dublin, in protest of Aung San Suu Kyi receiving the award. Does action like his throw any weight to the argument and put pressure on others handing back their awards?

High profile private initiatives like Bob Geldof’s are good because they draw attention to serious human rights violations that have given rise to a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. A lot of people, including world leaders, listen to celebrities. We’re talking about his actions here now.

However, let’s make sure this is a story about the more than 600 000 refugees and the hundreds of thousands of others whose rights are violated in Rakhine and across Myanmar. Ironically, it was not so long ago that giving Aung San Suu Kyi awards was a method to draw attention to a human rights crisis; now stripping her of awards and others handing back theirs is drawing attention to a human rights crisis. 

2: Does it seem like Myanmer is now lower on our radar, and we’ve become immune to the abuse?

Well, if we have become immune to systematic and widespread human rights abuse it does not bode well for humanity.

Unfortunately the international community has been so desperate for good news story and to believe the prevailing narrative that Myanmar is ‘open for business’ that they refused to see the human rights violations predicted to give rise to the situation with the Rohingya. They deemed engagement, particularly economic through trade and investment, worth not pressing Myanmar’s government to hard on human rights. They avoided confronting the issues that human rights organisations on the ground have been pointing out. 

Even worse, neighbouring states seem totally uninterested in the treatment of ethnic minorities and human rights law as part of their international relations with Myanmar, particularly if they have vested interests and investment in the country. ASEAN has no mechanism to deal with this type of crisis and has no interest in developing one. While they want harmonisation of trade and investment laws, they do not want human rights laws. The increasingly authoritarian bent of Myanmar’s neighbours doe not provide good examples for a nascent democracy to aspire. 

3:  Is Aung San Suu Kyi Ain a position that she can’t speak out against the military, hence why she is still very quiet on the matter?

Aung San Suu Kyi is indeed in a difficult position: the NLD has placed a priority on and spent much of its time in power trying to build trust with the military to promote peace and development. Many in the NLD government are former political prisoners themselves. The NLD does not control the military or key departments of the government. The Judiciary is not independent and cannot review the actions of the military. The military may be very pleased with the situation as they conduct ‘clearance operations’ against ethnic minorities with he usual impunity while Aung San Suu Kyi takes the blame. 

The NLD’s attempt to engage and build trust with the military has resulted in the sacrifice of human rights. This inturn has undermined the goal of peace and stability. Many national and international organisations warned the NLD leadership that sacrificing human rights would undermine their goals in the long term. 

Aung San Su Kyi and the NLD should use their tremendous moral authority to encourage the people of Myanmar to consider a more inclusive national identity based on the rule of law and human rights.  But the time for that may have passed. The catastrophic results of silence may have already occurred. Failure to address humanitarian access, safe, dignified, voluntary and sustained returns, as well as true reconciliation between communities will ensure that human rights abuse continues to fuel the Rohingya crisis. 



On Saturday evening I was asked by Al Jazeera news to comment on economic aspects of the Rohingya human rights crisis in Rakhine State. Here is a summary of my comments:

Al Jazeera: Are you surprised to learn that the Myanmar government will harvest the rice crops of displaced Rohingya?

Me: No, I’m not surprised. For a government that pursues policy resulting in hundreds of thousands of displaced people land and crop expropriation is not a big leap. This is part of a national human rights problem where an estimated half of the population does not have the legal right to the land they live on; the system of land tenure in Myanmar is broken. The Rohingya will suffer, in particular, because of the widespread acceptance that they are illegal immigrants in the first place.

Al Jazeera: Is land grabbing the reason for this ethnic cleaning and conflict? Is the government trying to get a hold of not just the rice but the valuable resources in the area?

Me: Certainly relatively plentiful natural resources in Rakhine are underexploited. But this is an ethnic, religious and nationalist conflict. Land grabbing is not the cause but will likely be one of the results.

Al Jazeera: What is next for the Rohingya? What should the international community do or is it too late?

Me: Well, this situation should not be a surprise to the international community. Human Rights organisations have been warning the international community, diplomats in the country and the national government that human rights violations against the Rohingya were causing a precarious situation likely to result in violence, mass exodus and displaced people. ‘Gloomy’ warnings were disregarded as the preferred narrative was that Myanmar is ‘open for business.’

The international community needs to now support the Rohingya and ensure the cost of this humanitarian disaster does not fall solely on Bangladesh. Neighbouring countries need to encourage the Myanmar government to protect, promote and fulfil the human rights of all people in Rakhine State, especially the Rohingya, and ensure they are able to return to their land. But most importantly, leadership at the national level is required to foster a culture more accepting of human rights. This is not just the role of the government and Aung San Su Kyi:  Public intellectuals, academics, civil society organisations, lawyers and national media all need to speak out in support of human rights in Rakhine State.


This article appeared in the Irrawaddy on 25 May 2017 here:


Burma’s 2016 Investment Law and the implementing Investment Rules issued in April 2017 create space for the government and civil society to facilitate responsible investment and exclude investors that have track records of environmental destruction and human rights abuses.

This means that affected individuals and communities must now test Burma’s commitment to the rule of law. There are new opportunities for civil society to use law to hold them accountable. In this regard, both international law and Burma’s constitution guarantee access to justice for rights abuses.

The Investment Rules instruct the Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC) to consider whether investors have demonstrated a commitment to responsible investment. In considering the good character and reputation of the investor, the MIC may study whether the investor or any associate with an interest in the investment broke the law in Burma or any other jurisdiction. The rules explicitly mention environmental, labor, tax, anti-bribery and corruption or human rights law.

What this means is that if an investor is determined to have committed a crime, has violated environmental protection standards or was involved with human rights abuses, the MIC should not grant it a permit.  If such a company applies for an investment permit, civil society should bring its record to the attention of the MIC and advocate for the rejection of a permit.

Successive governments in Burma have focused on increased investment to develop the country and improve its people’s standard of living.

At the same time, human rights and environment proponents from civil society have opposed many investment projects, citing the impact on the environment and human rights of local communities. They complain that land rights are not adequately protected, that environmental impact assessments are not implemented and that they lack access to justice for corporate human rights abuses.

There are challenges to using the law to protect human rights in Burma. Disputes related to business activity are often considered sensitive political matters in which the courts are unable or unwilling to intervene. They are reluctant to review crucial decisions of administrative bodies or to hold rights abusers accountable.

But community activists, human rights defenders and lawyers have increased opportunities to pressure the courts to apply the law and should do so. Lawyers have an important role in protecting human rights by representing local communities.

Courts must become a venue to challenge administrative decisions that allow for irresponsible investment that does not comply with national law, and where appropriate, obtain remedies and reparations for victims of human rights violations.

The Investment Law and its rules, which govern both local and foreign investment except within special economic zones, provide legal guarantees for investors to access information and protections against expropriation including compensation and access to due process if changes in regulation affect their business. Investors can also access long-term rights to use land.

Civil society should help to ensure that only responsible investors benefit from these protections. According to the law, the MIC is the gatekeeper that issues permits and endorsements for many would-be national and international investments likely to cause a large impact on the environment and local community.

In order to ensure that the protective aspects of the law are effective, courts must have some power of review, at least to ensure that administrative bodies, such as the MIC, are acting reasonably and in accordance with the law, while respecting and protecting human rights. If the MIC grants permits for companies that do not meet the requirements outlined in the Investment Rules, their decisions must be subject to review by the judiciary.

Burma’s courts have the authority to review administrative decisions, particularly through the application of constitutional writs. Lawyers can use the writs of mandamusand certiorari to secure the performance of public duties and quash an illegal order already passed by public bodies such as the MIC. This would help ensure the MIC uses its mandate to prevent irresponsible investment.

Likewise, investors that fail to respect human rights or unlawfully cause damage to the environment must be held accountable; but there are few options to do so in Burma. Criminal prosecutions against companies, actions imposing administrative sanctions, and civil suits face a variety of procedural hurdles, particularly if involving joint ventures with state run enterprises.

For example, a negligence civil suit brought by villagers against the Heinda tin mine in Dawei District was unsuccessful because the 1909 Limitations Act demands complaints to be brought within one year of damage. Section 80 of the Civil Procedure Code requires prior notice and the names of plaintiffs to be given to the government two months before filing a suit against the government and allows small procedural defects to preclude a claim. Lawyers are sometimes unfamiliar with these procedures and communities are reluctant to put their names to such cases fearing reprisals.

Clearly there are significant challenges to ensuring that investment in Burma does not adversely affect human rights. To overcome these, civil society and lawyers must engage the administration—the MIC—to ensure only responsible investments is permitted and start to use the judiciary to review its actions. Likewise, cases must continue to be taken against investors that abuse human rights and harm the environment. Powerful investors must be constrained by the confines of the law, including human rights law.

Unless civil society and lawyers can use the legal framework to address these concerns, Burma’s judicial system is unlikely to develop; lawyers will not gain valuable experience and the public will remain distrustful. The process is long and arduous but necessary to protect human rights and the environment from irresponsible investment.

In February, 2017 the International Commission of Jurists released a comprehensive report on the Special Economic Zones and the corresponding laws in Myanmar. It examines the State duty to protect human rights and finds that the laws come up short. It  provides recommendations on how the government in Myanmar can take steps to avoid repeating mistakes of the past as it develops the SEZ in Kyauk Phyu, Rakhine State.

The Government of Myanmar should impose a moratorium on the development of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) until it can ensure SEZs can be developed inline with international human rights laws and standards, said the ICJ at a report launch held today in Yangon.

The 88-page report, entitled Special Economic Zones in Myanmar and the State Duty to Protect Human rights, assesses the laws governing Myanmar’s SEZs and finds that the legal framework is not consistent with the State’s duty to protect human rights.

For example, a case study examining the Kyauk Phyu SEZ in Rakhine State shows that the land acquisition process initiated in early 2016 lacks transparency, does not comply with national laws on land acquisition, and risks violating the rights of 20,000 residents facing displacement.

“The SEZ Law undermines the protection of human rights, and critical legal procedures are often poorly implemented, so the Kyauk Phyu project risks repeating the rights violations that have been associated with SEZs in the past,” said Sam Zarifi, the ICJ’s Asia Director.

“The NLD-led Government can make a break from the past by ensuring economic development projects benefit Myanmar’s people, rather than rushing to facilitate projects which result in human rights violations and ultimately undermine sustainable development,” he added.

Myanmar’s legal framework for SEZs is based on the 2014 SEZ Law and incorporating national laws governing land, labour and the environment.

The report shows that while national laws require Environmental Impact Assessments and the application of international standards on involuntary resettlement, the SEZ Law does not establish clear accountabilities for the implementation of these procedures.

This has contributed to human rights violations and abuses in each of Myanmar’s three SEZs, the report says.

“It has been encouraging that government officials have emphasized their commitment to protecting human rights in SEZs in line with the rule of law,” said Sean Bain, the ICJ’s Legal Consultant in Myanmar and lead author of the report.

“The legal reforms recommended in this report will be critical to meet these commitments while fulfilling the State’s duty to protect human rights in SEZs. We also suggest that investors take heightened due diligence measures to ensure they are not complicit in rights violations,” he added.

The report was based on extensive legal research as well as interviews with over 100 people, from affected communities to investors and government officials, during 2016.

Key recommendations to the Government of Myanmar

  • Protect human rights in Myanmar’s SEZs by amending the SEZ Law, through meaningful public consultation in accordance with international standards.
  • Order a moratorium on the development of SEZs, and on entering related investment agreements, until the SEZ Law has been amended to ensure conformity with international human rights law and standards.
  • Commission a Strategic Environmental Assessment for the Kyauk Phyu SEZ, in line with Myanmar’s environmental conservation laws. This would involve consultation to inform decision-making on the Kyauk Phyu SEZ and related projects, by identifying cumulative environmental and social impacts of all the developments in Kyauk Phyu, while considering conflict dynamics and economic development in Rakhine State.
  • Suspend land acquisition in Kyauk Phyu until after the completion of a resettlement plan that is in line with international standards, as required in the EIA Procedure.


Sean Bain, ICJ Legal Consultant in Myanmar, t: +95 9263533230 ; e: sean.bain(a)

Myanmar-SEZ assessment-Publications-Reports-Thematic reports-2017-ENG(full report, in PDF)

Myanmar-SEZ assessment SUMMARY-Publications-Reports-Thematic reports-2017-ENG (executive summary of the report, in PDF)

Myanmar-SEZ assessment full-Publications-Reports-Thematic reports-2017-BUR (Burmese version of full report, in PDF)

Myanmar-SEZ assessment-Publications-Reports-Thematic reports-2017-BUR(Burmese version of the executive summary, in PDF)

Dear Readers,

The draft policy has been prepared by MONREC and is being circulated. The draft policy is attached below. It is vital that civil society in Myanmar engage by providing comments and participating in upcoming consultation.

The purpose of this National Environmental Policy is to provide long-term guidance for government, civil society, the private sector and development partners in Myanmar on environment and sustainable development objectives in Myanmar. The Policy will guide detailed strategic frameworks and action plans for the environment sector, including green economic development, climate change and waste management strategies, as well as provide guidance for the mainstreaming of environmental considerations into all other plans and policies developed in Myanmar.

It proposes the following framework:


By 2030, Myanmar will be activelyprotecting and managingthe environment in ways that maintain biodiversity, support inclusive social and economic progress, respect human rights, and enhance quality of life for all people now and in future generations. Myanmar will have prioritized low-carbon and green economic development, and in doing so have helped ensure healthy and functioning ecosystems and living environments for all people.


To provide a practical framework for integrating environmental objectives in all policies, laws, regulations, plans, strategies, programmes and projects so that they contribute to environmental protection and sustainable development across Myanmar.


To articulate national environmental policy principles andguidance on incorporating environmental considerations into all sectoral policies and planning in order to:

– protect Myanmar’s important ecosystems, natural resources, and natural and cultural heritage, and ensure healthy living environments

– promote sustainable development in Myanmar and provide a practical framework for its pursuit

– improve environmental governance in Myanmar

The Full Policy is attached here: national-environmental-policy-statement-2016_eng_nov20_final_clean_ta

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