We sat down with Vicky to discuss her new role at the ICoCA Board.
What is the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (MCRB)?
We set up MCRB in 2013 at a time when optimism about Myanmar was high, and investors were moving in after decades of isolation. The 2011 UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights had just been adopted. We created MCRB to support their implementation on the ground by companies, government and civil society groups.
This included inventing a new tool, the Sector Wide Impact Assessment (SWIA), to jump start individual human rights impact assessments (HRIA) by companies, by highlighting the main human rights risks and recommendations for avoidance or mitigation. Unlike a company level HRIA, SWIAs also included an analysis of the legal and policy framework, and recommendations on improving it. MCRB undertook SWIAs on oil and gas, mining, Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and tourism, with field research throughout the country, getting inputs from civil society groups, human rights defenders and other rightsholders.
One of the follow-on activities that MCRB undertook was to set up and be the secretariat for the Myanmar In-Country Working Group of the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights. It was this which prompted us to undertake a baseline assessment on private security companies, since it was an issue of common interest to the Group’s multistakeholder members.
After the military coup in February 2021, we continued to give feedback to companies and connect them to civil society stakeholders, and promote collective action by business, including on transparency. We finalised and published the assessment on private security companies (PSCs) in Myanmar, in English, Burmese, and Chinese. But the operating environment for civil society organisations and companies has become very challenging. After I was arrested in August 2022, MCRB went low profile. We formally closed the Yangon office in December 2022, after my release. But we continue to make use of our networks and knowledge to support responsible business as best we can. We are also connecting with regional and international stakeholders who are interested in practical examples of heightened human rights due diligence in a conflict-affected country.
What motivated MCRB to join ICoCA in 2020?
When we embarked on the baseline assessment of PSCs in Myanmar at the end of 2019, we were keen to draw on international best practice and guidance, just as we had with the SWIAs. This was what led us to ICoCA. We decided to structure our approach to the assessment around the Code and ICoCA’s human rights due diligence approach. We benefitted from learning about the assessments that other ICoCA Members had undertaken like AfriLaw’s study of private security governance in Nigeria and the Usalama Reforms Forum’s assessment in Kenya. We felt that by joining ICoCA, we would both learn from other countries, and be able to showcase our work.
Why did you decide to join the ICoCA Board of Directors?
Now that I am based in London and only working part-time for MCRB, I am looking to take on a portfolio of non-executive and Board roles. I am interested in corporate governance, both of companies – something MCRB works on – but also not-for-profits, and was a founding Board member of Myanmar Institute of Directors.
I’m also still involved through Institute for Human Rights and Business in some of the other business-led and multistakeholder initiatives on business and human rights which are relevant to ICoCA, such as the Voluntary Principles Initiative, as well as requirements for mandatory human rights due diligence of supply chains. There are an awful lot of initiatives, and it can be overwhelming for all stakeholders on the ground to make sense of them at country level. Through the ICoCA Board, I would like to work with other initiatives to ensure that they are synergistic rather than duplicative, and address any gaps.
Why does ICoCA’s mission resonate with you?
What ICoCA seeks to do, ‘to raise private security industry standards and practices that respect human rights and international humanitarian law and to engage with key stakeholders to achieve widespread adherence to its Code globally’ is very much aligned to the work we have been doing in Myanmar. It’s important for regulation and company behaviour to be aligned to international standards. But the implementation has to be informed by country-level context, which is best understood by talking to local stakeholders.
Through undertaking the assessment, I have become increasingly interested in the private security industry. One thing I have realised is that, although the focus is often on the human rights impacts that guards have on others, the organisation should never lose sight of the rights of security personnel themselves. Our Myanmar study observed that the most common human rights abuse was the working conditions of security personnel, particularly pay. This was driven by competing for contracts from clients, whose decisions were mainly made on cost rather than quality. I remember a comment from an ICoCA webinar on the Kenya study, where it was pointed out that until the rights of security guards are respected by their employers, it will be difficult to expect them to respect the rights of others.
Related to this, I was fascinated by Close Watch, by Finnish artist Pilvi Takala who trained as a guard to work for Securitas in Finland to use her art practice to ‘shed light on an underpaid, undervalued and underregulated workforce in which guards must face ethical dilemmas to work responsibly in roles learned almost entirely on the job and passed down from senior colleagues’. She made a video installation which represented Finland at the 2022 Venice Biennale which underlined how complex the role of a security guard can be.
Reflecting on your involvement in addressing conflicts and human rights challenges in Myanmar, what do you consider to be some of the major issues on the horizon in promoting responsible private security and ensuring accountability for abuses when they occur?
One thing we observed that, particularly after the coup in a very polarised political environment, is that social media can enhance accountability, and raise business’ awareness of risks. Even minor infractions by private security may be documented and uploaded on social media, with a serious impact on a company’s bottom line. This acts as a spur to companies to ensure that guards are trained to deal properly with potential scenarios. There was a case in October 2021 where security guards, rather than quietly escorting leafletting anti-military protesters out the back door of a shopping mall – as their protocols apparently were meant to require – attempted to apprehend them. This was documented by many shoppers and uploaded. The resulting boycott of the mall, and the loss of tenants in the connected office block, was a lesson not just to Myanmar Plaza, but to other companies too.
In Myanmar, it is where private security interfaces with public security forces that there are the greatest risks to human rights, and where companies risk being in breach of international humanitarian law. What we observed in our baseline assessment was that companies were very concerned about the risk of formal or informal deputation of their security guards in conflict zones, even pre-coup. In other words, they were worried private security guards – some of whom are ex-military or police – would be required or approached to help the public security forces in their clampdown on opposition groups. Even though this risk has not materialised for most companies, in areas where it is a real risk, it will be very challenging to manage it. For some, the only option, if they are based in an area of heightened conflict, is to exit Myanmar.
As ICoCA approaches its 10-year anniversary, what are the challenges and opportunities for the Association in the years ahead?
I think there will be more and more consideration of the interface between private security and ICT, including the impacts of surveillance and artificial intelligence on the rights to privacy, freedom of expression, and non-discrimination. That’s something I’m looking forward to being involved in how ICoCA takes forward the work with ICT4Peace to develop a toolkit and guidance for Responsible Use of ICTs in Private Security Service, building on ICT4Peace’s recently published Mapping Study.
The shift towards mandatory human rights due diligence in supply chains should be an incentive for companies to ensure that the private security in their supply chain is better trained and managed. ICoCA Certified Members should be well-positioned to benefit from that. The UN’s ‘Open-Ended Intergovernmental Working Group to elaborate the content of an international regulatory framework relating to the activities of private military and security companies’ will probably be a long-term opportunity for ICoCA if it leads to improved national regulatory frameworks for PSCs in ways which protect human rights. However, it is not clear how this will evolve.
The tensions between governments which are visible around that UN work are a reflection of wider global ‘decoupling’ which is a geopolitical risk for ICoCA. ICoCA needs to position itself as a useful organisation for companies globally, including with more Chinese language material. Our Myanmar PSC assessment, was kindly translated into Chinese by Kunming South Asia & Southeast Asia International Logistics Research Institute (SSILR) and has been downloaded even more than the English version. It referenced ICoCA a lot, so I hope it will have served in some small way to increase the profile of the Association in East Asia.