The pursuit of redress by a community harmed by a corporation from another country can take a more promising turn when a transnational case is filed, that is, when a forum in the corporation’s home country is sought to hear the case. Transnational cases are the most viable legal option when domestic options are unavailable or ineffective. Often, these cases are brought in the homes of American and European corporations. In August of this year, however, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of Thailand carved its niche in regional human rights promotion when it heard a case about violations in Sre Ambel District, Koh Kong Province, Cambodia.
The case involves sugar land concessions in Cambodia, the process of acquiring which was fraught with violence in the form of land confiscation from locals with strong legal claims to the land, killing of livestock, and threats by armed security groups. The Thai connection is a Thai company (Khon Kaen Sugar Industry Public Company Limited or KSL) that has 70% investment in and effective operational control over the two companies holding the Cambodian concessions (Koh Kong Plantation Co., Ltd. and Koh Kong Sugar Industry Co., Ltd.).
On January 6, 2010, lawyers from the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC) in Cambodia requested the Thai NHRC to investigate the human rights violations in Sre Ambel involving Thai corporation KSL. In August this year, the Thai NHRC stood by its commitment to promote and respect human rights by admitting a supplemental complaint from CLEC, hearing partner NGOs who are actively supporting the CLEC complaint, and calling on representatives of KSL to appear before the Commission. With both sides having presented their case before the Thai NHRC, and with the Commission seeking more information on the matter, full investigation is well underway.
The Cambodian community lawyers and affected Sre Ambel communities now stand on better ground, being able to tell their story to a body with constitutional and statutory powers to examine and report human rights abuses, and propose remedial measures to KSL and relevant agencies. This development also highlights a success in cooperation between Thai and Cambodian community and NGO groups, with the Thai groups vigorously taking the role of intermediary for Cambodian groups with limited resources to travel.
This initial success before the Thai NHRC also gives new and much needed energy to the Sre Ambel struggle, especially since the community has already tried to seek justice in a domestic civil case, which was filed in 2007 and remains unresolved. Amidst a belief among Cambodia’s development partners that a fair and transparent mechanism for resolving land disputes does not currently exist in the country, the present remedy outside of the Cambodian legal system is not only helpful – it is necessary.
While expectations from NHRCs have usually been low in countries with less democratic processes in place — with commissions being usually labeled as “paper tigers” or mere means of improving international reputation — the Thai NHRC has taken to new heights its unique role of sitting between government and civil society by recognizing that Thai entities have the responsibility to respect human rights wherever they operate.
This October, representatives from Sre Ambel and supporting NGOs will travel to Khon Kaen, Thailand to exchange stories of struggle with Thai farmers and to strengthen efforts to hold KSL to account for abuses that their community continues to suffer. The Thai NHRC has been invited to listen as part of their investigation.