In the mid-2000s in southwestern Cambodia, a violent land grab by sugar companies pushed 500 families off of their land, violating their rights to life, livelihoods and self-determination. In response, ERI and Cambodian CSO Community Legal Education Centre (CLEC) worked with the affected communities in Koh Kong to bring a landmark case to the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRCT). While companies from the U.K., the U.S. and Cambodia are also responsible for crimes in Koh Kong, the NHRCT case alleged that Thai corporation Khon Kaen Sugar Ltd. violated both Cambodian and international law. This was the first transboundary case accepted by the NHRCT.
ERI has also collaborated with the affected communities to pursue justice through the follwing mechanisms: Bonsucro, a sugar cane industry initiative for responsible and sustainable growing; the U.S. National Contact Point (NCP) for the OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises; and the United Kingdom court system.
Villagers impacted by the Koh Kong project
Koh Kong Sugar Industry and Koh Kong Plantation
Tate & Lyle Sugars, a main buyer of sugar from the Koh Kong companies
American Sugar Refineries, Inc., which markets Domino, C&H, and Redpath sugars and now owns Tate & Lyle’s sugar operations
Thai corporation Khon Kaen Sugar Ltd.
Community Legal Education Centre
The Cambodian government illegally granted nearly 10,000 hectares of land to two companies, Koh Kong Sugar Industry and Koh Kong Plantation, a joint Thai, Cambodian and Taiwanese venture, to develop sugar plantations and refineries. The Koh Kong sugar companies and local authorities expelled almost 500 families from their land in the villages of Chikor, Chhuk and Trapeng Kendal. In some cases, company and government security personnel shot and beat local residents during these relocations and evictions. These land grabs have taken away villagers’ livelihoods and property, threatening their access to food and way of life.
With the assistance of the Community Legal Education Centre (CLEC), the villagers filed civil and criminal complaints against the companies in the Koh Kong Provincial Court, calling for a cancellation of the land concession. The communities also called for the court to issue an injunction to stop the companies from clearing anymore land. This case soon stalled.
The U.N. Cambodia Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights also issued a report on economic land concessions and human rights in Cambodia.
The Koh Kong companies signed a contract to sell sugar to the U.K.-headquartered company Tate & Lyle Sugars.
In January, Villagers from the affected communities, ERI and CLEC filed a complaint with the NHRCT, alleging that the Thai corporation Khon Kaen Sugar Ltd., through Cambodian subsidiaries, obtained economic land concessions in violation of Cambodian laws and international human rights standards. Khon Kaen Sugar received all of the sugar from the Koh Kong plantations and owned 70 percent of the Koh Kong companies. In August, the Thai NHRC admitted a supplemental complaint from CLEC, heard submissions from partner NGOs and called on representatives of KSL to appear before the Commission.
In September, the European sugar operations of Tate & Lyle were acquired by American Sugar Refineries, Inc. (ASR), which markets Domino, C&H, and Redpath sugars. This acquisition included Tate & Lyle’s contract with the Koh Kong companies.
CLEC filed a complaint against Tate & Lyle over crimes in Koh Kong with Bonsucro, a sugar cane industry initiative for responsible and sustainable sugar growing.
In July, the Subcommittee on Civil and Political Rights for the NHRCT released a statement on its findings. The Subcommittee identified breaches of human rights, including the rights to life and self-determination, in the case of the Koh Kong plantations. It found that Khon Kaen Sugar was involved in these abuses and that the Commission had jurisdiction to rule in this case. The Provincial Court of Koh Kong also agreed to hear the case brought by CLEC and the communities. ERI and a coalition of CSOs issued a statement in response.
In September, a judge ruled that the court did not have jurisdiction over land disputes and transferred the case to another branch of the Cambodian legal system. The communities disputed this decision, insisting that their complaint related to the legality of the original land grant, rather than land ownership. Domestic legal strategies stalled at this point.
In October, ERI worked with the Koh Kong villagers to file a complaint against ASR with the U.S. National Contact Point (NCP) for the OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises.
In March, the communities filed a lawsuit in the U.K. against Tate & Lyle with pro bono law firm Jones Day, claiming the right to the sugar produced from their land. This lawsuit is still ongoing.
In June, the U.S. NCP for the OECD issued a Final Statement regarding the communities’ complaint. ASR had withdrawn from all mediation because the communities refused to withdraw their U.K. lawsuit against Tate & Lyle. The Final Statement did conclude that the claims of human rights abuses were “substantiated,” and called on ASR to develop a human rights policy.
The Koh Kong communities also filed a complaint against Tate & Lyle with Bonsucro, a socially-responsible sugar industry effort.
In July, Bonsucro suspended the company after they declined to cooperate in the complaint resolution process. The company refused to allow an investigation into any allegations, including those of child labor on Koh Kong plantations, and ignored a request to review compensation that has supposedly been paid to some of the Cambodian landowners.
In March, the final report by the NHRCT recognized the human rights violations at the Koh Kong plantation. It stated that this land grab violated the local population’s rights to life and self-determination, including their right to manage and benefit from natural resources and the right to development. This was the first trans-boundary case accepted by the NHRCT, setting a legal precedent on the Commission’s jurisdiction. The report found that KSL is responsible for human rights violations due to its decision to receive and benefit from the land concession that resulted in these violations, even if the company did not itself commit the abuses.
Politico | Private property, public greed in Cambodia | May 6, 2013
The Guardian | Tate & Lyle sugar supplier accused over child labour | July 9, 2013
Cambodia Daily | Tate & Lyle Sugar’s offer of new land & money reportedly rejected by villagers; UK lawsuit set to proceed | June 10, 2014
Food Navigator Asia | Tate & Lyle resigns from Bonsucro; company claims pending UK lawsuit makes them unable to “play an active role” in the initiative | June 25, 2014
Financial Times | Cambodians claim land grabs are crime against humanity | October 7, 2014
Cambodia Daily | Evictees in land dispute claim Thai company made them sign compensation agreements they can’t read | October 27, 2014
The Phnom Penh Post | Thai rights body finds firm liable for abuses | June 4, 2015
The Phnom Penh Post | Koh Kong villagers deliver petitions | January 21, 2016
The Nation | Law needed to regulate Thai investors’ abuses abroad: Thai, Myanmar groups | February 27, 2017
Joint Statement on the Cambodian court’s acceptance of the case | July 24, 2012
Cambodians File Complaint With U.S. Government Against Domino Sugar Parent | October 31, 2012
Bonsucro Suspends Tate & Lyle Over Cambodia Land-Grabbing | July 17, 2013
Human Rights Violations in Koh Kong Sugar Plantation Confirmed by Thai Human Rights Commission | June 3, 2015
Thai Human Rights Commission blazes the trail in hearing transnational human rights cases | Bobbie Sta. Maria | October 4, 2011
Lost Childhoods in Koh Kong, Cambodia | Cook Suriyashotichyangkul | August 27, 2013
Coca-Cola pledges ‘zero tolerance on land grabbing’ | Maureen Harris | November 14, 2013
Landmark Report Promotes Human Rights in Transboundary Investments | Maureen Harris | June 10, 2015
Writing the Rulebook: Will Thailand Force Its Businesses to Respect Human Rights? | Wora Suk | June 1, 2017