Peer learning boosts progress on business and human rights in Asia

February 15, 2018


The Asia-Pacific region has long been synonymous with economic dynamism. Over the last few decades, the volume of capital and trade flows has ballooned in the region, and hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty. By some estimates, Asia Pacific will become the world’s largest economic region by 2030. The centrality of trade and foreign direct investment to Asia’s economic growth now means that consumer concerns and business ethics take centre stage for many Asian states.

Against the backdrop of rapid economic development, however, the region has witnessed a growing trend in the violation of human rights by companies in their business operations in three key areas: environmental, labour and land rights. This has been exemplified by contaminated water sources from steel plants in Ha Thinh in Vietnam, illegal deforestation in Malaysian Borneo, and the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh.

Companies have resorted to illegal land appropriation against indigenous peoples in Papua province in Indonesia, whilst economic growth has translated into the violation of workers’ rights in the Thai seafood industry. Such violations require innovative, regional solutions that foster local ownership.

UNDP Asia-Pacific has worked since 2014 to address this. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), unanimously adopted by the Human Rights Council in 2011, provide a framework that enhances standards and practices in addressing adverse business impacts on human rights conditions.

At UNDP, we advocate for the implementation of the UNGPs with governments, business, civil society and indigenous peoples’ groups. This work has been conducted through the organization of multi-sector stakeholder dialogue and hybrid capacity-building events.

In addition, we work closely with National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) to improve their capacity, in particular their promotion and protection systems, to handle business and human rights cases. This enables NHRIs to effectively tackle national and transboundary cases and function as strong mediators for rights-holders. We also seek to facilitate a process of peer-learning between states.

UNDP has achieved significant success in Southeast Asia, cooperating with governments to develop National Action Plans (NAPs) on business and human rights. Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand received technical support in developing NAPs. Malaysia and Thailand are two of the first Asian nations to begin development of NAP drafting processes, closely followed by Indonesia’s incorporation of a business and human rights component into a wider human rights strategy.


meeting room with memebers lined up against a projector.

UNDP’s Southeast Asia Parallel Session Speakers at the UN Global Forum on Business and Human Rights, Geneva, Switzerland on 29 November 2017. Photo: Victoria de Mello/UNDP


Such success was showcased at the 2017 UN Global Forum on Business and Human Rights, held in Geneva, Switzerland in November. The progress of Southeast Asia in addressing business impacts on human rights was underlined in UNDP’s parallel session, where representatives from all three nations highlighted their experiences.

Pivotal to this success has been the rise in peer learning between partner governments, serving to fuel the regional ‘race to the top’ towards NAPs. While UNDP’s technical support was vital in the early stages of kick-starting the business and human rights agenda in their countries, experience-sharing between Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand has provided a catalytic effect on progress. Malaysian representatives were informed on the methodology needed to conduct baseline assessments and the drafting process of an NAP, while Thai officials got assistance in linking their business and human rights work within the wider framework of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Later, the Indonesian delegation would enquire about Malaysia’s help in drafting their own strategic framework with a business and human rights component.

This experience-sharing exercise increases state ownership of business and human rights work within countries and fuels a relationship of simultaneous cooperation and healthy competition in the region. Crucially, this facilitates increased political will for state action against business violations of environmental, labour and land rights.

The success of peer-learning in Southeast Asia has generated significant interest in UNDP’s work on business and human rights, with officials from South Asian states requesting technical support from UNDP and Southeast Asian states in beginning their own NAPs. This subsequently raises the possibility of exporting this model to other regions through South-South cooperation.

Learn more about UNDP’s work on business and human rights in Asia.