Today, December 10th, marks the 70th observation of Human Rights Day. Whilehe anniversary is particularly poignant given that there are more refugees today than at any time since World War II and that progress towards universal human rights is being curtailed or even rolled back in certain places.
Human Rights Day is observed on the anniversary of the United Nations Assembly adoption ofin 1948, which resulted from the desire to avoid repeating the events of WWII. The UDHR, which outlined 30 fundamental rights, marked the first time that member states of the United Nations (UN) agreed on a comprehensive statement of inalienable rights.
numerous humanitarian crises taking place around the world, today’s anniversary is an important chance to reassert the principles of the UDHR. As recently as 2015, 65 million men, women and children were forced from their home by war and persecution. In Syria, civil war between opposition groups and the Assad government has caused the deaths of over 465,000 people, and the displacement of over 12 million, half the country's prewar population. The impoverished gulf state of Yemen is also locked in a destructive civil war that the UN Secretary-General António Guterres has described “ ”. Yemen’s conflict, between the Houthis and the government, backed by Saudi forces, has displaced over 2 million civilians and 8.4 million more face the risk of famine and disease due to lack of access to clean water, health care, and imports of food and medical supplies. Although Burma (Myanmar) has been in democratic transition, ongoing violence including alleged genocide against the Rohingya communities continues. This drove more than 650,000 Rohingya people to flee to neighboring Bangladesh to escape mass killings, sexual violence, arson, and other abuses amounting to crimes against humanity by the security forces. Though a peace agreement has recently been signed in South Sudan, since 2013 the fledgling country has been mired in a civil war that has displaced 5 million people and killed tens of thousands, generating the largest refugee crisis in Africa.
The protection of human rights, especially in areas of conflict, is important to investors. For a sustainable business environment to develop in former crisis areas, there must be freedom from violence and persecution. Profits and benefits must broadly shared rather than flowing to those responsible for the conflict so that they contribute to create markets and new opportunities to people in areas of conflict. Further, lack of attention to crises can put investors and corporations at risk of linkage to severe human rights violations and impact their operations through physical, legal, and reputational risk to its employees, contractors, business partners, customers, and local communities as well as physical and financial assets.
To respect human rights, even when broad-based sanctions are not present or lifted, as in Burma (Myanmar), investors must conduct enhanced due diligence for companies with ties to conflict areas to avoid both risks to reputations & operations and the risk of fueling crises. Investors also have the power to create positive impact through this strengthened due diligence, as well as corporate engagement and public policy work. This work can also contribute to progress toward United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16: Peace, Justice, & Strong Institutions by promoting just, peaceful and inclusive societies, which is also a prerequisite to achieve SDG 1: No Poverty by ending poverty in all its forms everywhere as well to achieve other SDG goals.
Domini has been a long-term advocate for human rights issues, particularly in South Sudan and Burma, engaging multinational companies about the risks of being connected to or complicit in human rights violations.
“[The outbreak of violence in Burma has] spiraled into the world’s fastest-developing refugee emergency, a humanitarian and human rights nightmare.”
-UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres
South Sudan and Burma are both known for their rich natural resources: Oil in South Sudan and various minerals and precious stones in Burma. These assets have attracted multinational companies seeking resources and labor. When conflict broke out in these regions, some of these companies abdicated their responsibilities, by either withdrawing or working to have a positive impact on local communities, and instead took advantage of the situation by siding with forces responsible for violence and human rights abuses in return for favorable access and protection. For instance,, a Japanese wholesale trading company, was in partnership with Burmese regime to sell motorcycles, light trucks and cars. These vehicles were only accessible to its wealthiest citizens and those with military connections. In South Sudan, foreign companies often enter joint business operations with government officials who are responsible for violence against civilians. Such ventures may not only link companies to human rights violations, presenting a business risk, but also support and perpetuate violence, which is morally unacceptable but also undermines the chances that the country will develop a sustainable business environment in the future.
In our on-going efforts to enforce human rights issues in South Sudan and Burma, we launched numerous engagement campaigns and issue papers over the past few years. In 2017, Domini released anwhich outlines the factors we consider when evaluating the eligibility of companies for our portfolios that operate in Burma to inform companies and other investors. In 2018 we launched a follow-up campaign, sending a letter to fourty-five Japanese companies held in Domini’s portfolio concerning the operations in Burma. The letters were sent exactly one year after the massacre carried out by the Burmese military as part of its campaign to drive the Rohingya people out of the country. We focused on Japanese companies because the administration of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe along with , a powerful business association including some of the largest Japanese companies, has advocated for aggressive expansion of businesses in Burma despite the ongoing crisis in Rakhine state. Even as evidence of the Myanmar military’s crimes mounted, and senior UN officials labeled the situation as ethnic cleansing, the Japanese government failed to join the global outcry or attempt to distance itself from Myanmar’s military leadership. In our letter, we stated our serious concerns that some Japanese companies involved in the country lacked transparency regarding their human rights due-diligence processes and were at risk of being linked to or supporting severe human rights violations.
This year, in order to raise awareness about the conflict, we released anon the crisis in South Sudan that included a guide for how investors should respond to the difficult situation. In the paper, we explain our enhanced due diligence process for companies that operate or have ties to business in the country, including the factors that help us determine whether these companies are eligible for investment. We also describe other actions investors can take to mitigate risk and promote responsible business conduct and regard for human rights in the hopes that it will guide other investors and companies with ties to operations in conflict zones.
Investors have unique tools and strong voice to promote respect for human rights, and at Domini we will continue using them to support universal human dignity around the world.