Alleged abuses linked to China’s ‘Belt and Road’ projects: report

Almost a third of the alleged abuses recorded from 2013 to 2020 have taken place in Southeast Asia, including Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Indonesia.

When the Lower Sesan 2 hydroelectric dam was completed in 2018, it flooded vast areas upstream of the confluence of the Sesan and Srepok Rivers, two tributaries of the Mekong River, displacing thousands of people [File: Ly Lay/ AFP]

At least 679 incidents of alleged human rights abuses have been uncovered and linked to the business operations of Chinese companies abroad, according to a new report, shedding more light on China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its consequences on marginalised communities.

In a report published on Wednesday, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) revealed that the alleged abuses were more likely to take place in countries with “weaker governance and where Chinese investments are dominant”.

The London-based watchdog group monitors allegations relating to the human rights repercussions of more than 10,000 companies worldwide.

Almost a third of the alleged abuses recorded between 2013 and 2020 took place in Southeast Asia, including Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Indonesia, the report said. African and Latin American countries also figured prominently, including Peru and Ecuador.


The report said that many of the human rights risks were linked to Chinese business activities in metal and mining, fossil fuel energy and construction.

The Belt and Road Initiative rolled out by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 is a multi-year investment and infrastructure project aimed at advancing China’s foreign policy and influence around the world.

Official data showed total foreign direct investments from China to the countries involved in the initiative surpassed $90bn between 2013 and 2018.

The programme has led to valuable direct investment especially in many developing countries, boosting their infrastructure development. Critics, however, say many of the projects ignore the concerns of people directly affected by them, and lack the necessary transparency on issues, including their environmental impact.

“While there are many emergent positive developments from China’s businesses overseas, China’s aspiration to be a responsible great power could be undermined” by the allegations of rights abuses, the report said.

Underwater in Cambodia

The BHRRC report follows the release of a study by Human Rights Watch (HRW) that described a “human rights disaster” in northeastern Cambodia amid the construction of Lower Sesan 2, a China-financed hydroelectric dam, which has led to the displacement of nearly 5,000 people from ethnic minorities and the permanent flooding of their former communities.

“The Lower Sesan 2 dam washed away the livelihoods of Indigenous and ethnic minority communities who previously lived communally and mostly self-sufficiently from fishing, forest-gathering, and agriculture,” John Sifton, Asia advocacy director of HRW, said in the report released on Tuesday.

When the dam was completed in 2018, it flooded large areas upstream of the confluence of the Sesan and Srepok Rivers, two tributaries of the Mekong River, displacing thousands.

Today, what used to be communities populated by Indigenous people, including the Bunong and Kachok, are permanently submerged with only rooftops of former private homes and houses of worship, as well as dead trees visible.

According to HRW, Cambodian authorities and the construction companies involved in the project “improperly consulted” with the affected communities before the project began and “largely ignored” their concerns.

“Many were coerced into accepting inadequate compensation for lost property and income, provided with poor housing and services at resettlement sites, and given no training or assistance to secure new livelihoods,” the report said.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen (C) inaugurates the 400 megawatt Lower Sesan 2 hydropower plant during a ceremony in Stung Treng province in December 2018 [File: Ly Lay/AFP]

According to the report, Cambodian officials as well as the private companies involved failed “to genuinely consult” with residents and made no attempt to obtain the “free, prior, and informed consent” of Indigenous peoples, as specified in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Throughout the project’s construction from 2011 to 2018, community members protested and appealed directly to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to address their concerns.

“But officials repeatedly dismissed community concerns and resisted discussions of alternatives. Some who objected were threatened or even jailed,” the HRW report said.

“The company didn’t consider Indigenous rights,” one Bunong villager told HRW. “They just told us to move.”

Multi-billion projects in Myanmar

Meanwhile, the BHRRC report flagged as “high risks” Chinese business activities in Myanmar, which has been under military rule since the February 1 coup.

The group said it was “concerning” that even before the February coup, there were questions about the human rights implications of many China-backed projects.

Since the coup, business activities have only intensified.

In May, the military government reportedly approved 15 projects, including a $2.5bn power plant that will run on liquefied natural gas, built and operated by Chinese companies.

“There is a possibility more projects operated by Chinese companies could be approved by the military junta in the future, among which many may raise further controversies and public concerns,” the report said.

“This highlights the imperative for companies to implement robust human rights due diligence in conflict-affected areas,” the report said.

Among the countries listed by the BHRRC report, Myanmar has the highest recorded allegations of rights abuses, with 97 complaints. Laos has 39 recorded complaints, while Cambodia and Indonesia had 34 and 25 complaints respectively.


As China continues to grow its overseas investments and expands the Belt and Road Initiative, the report urged Chinese companies and the governments involved to “ensure respect for human rights”.

“There are great opportunities for companies, business associations, the governments of China and countries hosting investments to further strengthen the regulatory environment and its implementation by Chinese companies operating overseas,” the report said.

It noted that Chinese companies involved in renewable energy projects, as well as those listed in various stock exchanges, were most responsive to complaints of rights abuses.

“This is still low compared to the Asian company average, but higher than the Chinese company average. Chinese companies can build on this enhanced performance to strengthen their contribution to a ‘just transition’ towards clean energy.”

The report said rights abuses can be avoided if the players involved ensure transparency, human rights due diligence, proper grievance mechanisms, and access to remedy for communities affected based on “international standards”.

“Supported by legislation, comprehensive guidance and effective implementation mechanisms, actions should prioritise addressing heightened risks across countries and sectors,” the report said.

Source: Al Jazeera