Cambodia: Displaced families file complaint against sugar certification body, Bonsucro, for failure to hold Mitr Phol accountable

A formal complaint was filed by representatives of more than 700 families in Cambodia against Bonsucro, the sustainability certification body of the sugar industry. The complaint alleges, among others, that Bonsucro breached OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises when it failed to hold a member company, Mitr Phol, accountable for land grabbing and displacement claims. 

Business & Human Rights Resource is also following the developments of the lawsuit against Mitr Phol

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9 October 2019

Commentary: "UK NCP Takes Step Towards Strengthening Multi-stakeholder Initiative Accountability"

Author: Dr Rachel Chambers, RightsasUsual

On 25 September 2019 [...] the UK National Contact Point (NCP) [...] accept[ed] a complaint regarding the actions of sugar industry multi-stakeholder initiative (MSI) Bonsucro as admissible... This decision forms part of a welcomed trend of greater acceptance of complaints by the UK NCP. It is also the second complaint about an MSI to be accepted by an NCP...

MSIs are being increasingly assessed for their performance and critiqued, particularly when they fail to hold their corporate members to account for human rights violations...

Bonsucro argued that the UK NCP was not the appropriate forum for the complaint to be heard...

The UK NCP [found] that Bonsucro falls within the loose definition of an MNE from the Guidelines, and that it was appropriate for the NCP to consider alleged human rights violations that are linked to a company’s operations, products or services by a business relationship...

It is hoped that the mediation will be productive and, if not, that the UK NCP will use this opportunity to clarify the OECD Guidelines’ role in enhancing the accountability and ultimately the strength and legitimacy of MSIs. The Bonsucro decision should also be placed in its wider context... With two separate NCPs going in the same direction, the role of business and human rights standards to strengthen the accountability of non-state actors operating transnationally is now open for discussion...

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27 September 2019

UK National Contact Point accepts OECD complaint against sugar certification body Bonsucro

Author: Inclusive Development International

"UK Government Body Accepts OECD Complaint against Sugar “Sustainability” Body", 25 Sep 2019

The UK National Contact Point for the OECD, a government body that monitors the operations of British businesses overseas, has ruled admissible a landmark complaint against the sugar industry’s sustainability certification body, Bonsucro. The decision establishes that London-based Bonsucro is bound by OECD standards on responsible business conduct and does not operate in a human rights vacuum. This has ramifications for other industry sustainability associations, which have grown in importance in response to consumer demand for ethically sourced products.

The complaint was filed in March on behalf of more than 700 displaced Cambodian families by the U.S. organization Inclusive Development International and the Cambodian organizations Equitable Cambodia and the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO).  It alleged that the sugar association violated the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises by failing to hold its member company, Mitr Phol, accountable after the Thai sugar giant grabbed the families’ land and left them homeless and destitute...

The UK National Contact Point will now offer the parties an opportunity to mediate the issues, or if mediation fails, it will examine further the claim that Bonsucro’s actions are inconsistent with the OECD Guidelines.

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10 March 2019

Cambodia: Sugar certification body, Bonsucro, faces a complaint from families displaced by Mitr Phol operations

Author: Inclusive Development International

"Human rights complaint filed to UK government against ethical sugar association Bonsucro," 11 March 2019

Representatives of more than 700 Cambodian families who were violently displaced to make way for a sugar plantation have filed a formal complaint against Bonsucro, the sugar industry’s sustainability certification body, for breaches of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. The complainants allege that Bonsucro failed to hold a member company, Mitr Phol, accountable after the Thai sugar giant grabbed their land and left them homeless and destitute.

Representatives of the families filed the complaint with the UK National Contact Point, a government body that handles human rights grievances against British multinational enterprises. Bonsucro is headquartered in the United Kingdom, a member of the OECD, and has operations that span the globe.

“The international framework on business and human rights calls upon industry associations like Bonsucro to provide effective grievance mechanisms for people harmed by their members. Bonsucro has spectacularly failed to fulfill this responsibility,” said Natalie Bugalski, Legal Director of Inclusive Development International. “On behalf of the displaced communities who turned to Bonsucro to support their quest for justice, and the consumers who were led to believe that the Bonsucro label meant ethically produced sugar, we are seeking accountability.”

Despite an investigation by the Thai National Human Rights Commission, which found Mitr Phol responsible for the land grab and called upon the company to "correct and remedy the impacts," Mitr Phol has steadfastly refused to provide any form of compensation...

The full complaint is available here.

For more information, see here.

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10 March 2019

Guest Blog on the complaint of displaced families against Bonsucro

Author: Natalie Bugalski & David Pred, Inclusive Development International

"Calling out the BS in BonSucro: Why Multistakeholders Initiatives Need to be Held Accountable for their Rights-Abusing Members," 11 March 2019

This week the world’s biggest sugar producers, traders and buyers are gathering at a luxury hotel in Bangkok for “Bonsucro Global Week” to celebrate their journey to social and environmental sustainability. 

Bonsucro, an industry-dominated multi-stakeholder initiative with a mission “to promote sustainable sugarcane production around the world,” is holding its annual conference in Thailand this year to showcase Thai sugar giant Mitr Phol as an exemplar of corporate responsibility.  On the agenda is a tour of one of Mitr Phol’s Thai operations for guests to “see first-hand sustainability in action.” 

What they won’t highlighting is Mitr Phol’s legacy of land grabbing and forced displacement in Cambodia. 

This hypocrisy has got to end.  That’s why we filed a complaint this week against Bonsucro with the UK National Contact Point for the OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises. 

Ten years ago, more than 700 smallholder farming families were violently displaced and stripped of their land, homes and livelihoods to clear the way for a 200-square kilometer land concession that Mitr Phol planned to turn into a sprawling sugar plantation in Northwestern Cambodia.  Those who attempted to defend their community’s land rights were thrown in jail, including Hoy Mai, who was five months pregnant when she was arrested on trumped-up charges after traveling to the capital to petition the Prime Minister for redress.  She suffered through the rest of her pregnancy, gave birth and nursed her infant son in a squalid prison cell during her eight months of confinement. Hoy Mai and thousands of other Cambodians whose land was seized for the plantation have endured over a decade of impoverishment and related hardships as a result.

A few years later, Mitr Phol abandoned its Cambodia project because the land wasn’t sufficiently productive for sugarcane cultivation. Mitr Phol has never provided any form of remediation to the Cambodian families whose lives it destroyed in pursuit of its failed business venture. 

Months after the forced evictions took place, Mitr Phol was admitted as a member of Bonsucro. In 2011, we helped Hoy Mai’s community file one of the first complaints ever submitted to Bonsucro’s grievance mechanism, arguing that Mitr Phol was in breach of its commitment to abide by the sugar association’s code of ethical conduct. 

Last December, after sitting on the complaint for nearly eight years, Bonsucro’s board dismissed the case on the grounds that it “does not consider that it has received cogent evidence that…Mitr Phol breached the terms of Bonsucro’s Code of Conduct.” The reams of evidence that we provided of illegal land seizures, destruction of private property, forced evictions and deforestation - including an official investigation report from the Thai Human Rights Commission confirming the allegations - was apparently not enough to persuade the self-appointed standard-setter for the sugar industry that its member’s conduct was problematic. And with the case neatly closed, Bonsucro proceeded with its plans to promote Mitr Phol “as a leading member” at its big event this week in Thailand. 

It’s high time for voluntary industry standards organizations like Bonsucro to be held accountable to their own human rights responsibilities.  And that’s just what we’re asking the UK National Contact Point to do.

Bonsucro, by design, provides an ethical seal of approval to the companies that it accepts as members. This reputational benefit is used by these companies to advance their business, including attracting investment, finance, customers, and securing land deals for plantations -- all with human rights implications. Consumers, like us, are led to believe we can trust in the Bonsucro label in making responsible purchasing decisions.

Through actively positioning itself as a regulatory body, albeit voluntary in nature, Bonsucro creates a public expectation and arguably a duty of care to meet minimum standards of regulatory oversight. Given the scale of the sugarcane industry and its social, environmental and human rights impacts worldwide, and the large number of enterprises that make up Bonsucro’s membership, it is critical that Bonsucro be held accountable to international human rights standards to ensure the credibility of its public claims. 

The OECD Guidelines, which set standards on human rights and other areas of responsible business conduct, themselves encourage membership of multi-stakeholder initiatives as a means by which enterprises can achieve and collectively ensure compliance. They note that members should “[ensure] that these initiatives take due account of their social and economic effects on developing countries and of existing internationally recognised standards.” The intent of the guidelines is to promote these initiatives as one way to strengthen adherence to human rights and promote responsible business conduct. It is certainly not to promote initiatives that would provide cover to its corporate members for violating human rights though its stamp of approval.

One of Bonsucro’s key responsibilities under the guidelines is to use its leverage with its members to address human rights concerns, especially serious ones that are brought to its attention, as we did in the case of Mitr Phol. Bonsucro has special leverage when it comes to the human rights conduct of its members: its very mission is to promote responsible sugarcane, and the reason companies seek membership is to obtain the attendant reputational benefits.

Moreover, Bonsucro’s board and membership consists of the dominant players in the sugar industry, including some of Mitr Phol’s biggest customers, past and present, such as The Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, Mars Wrigley, Nestlé and Corbion.  There is little doubt that if these major sugar buyers had acted collectively through Bonsucro, they could have effectively used their leverage with Mitr Phol to provide appropriate remediation for the displaced Cambodian families. But they actively decided not to do so.

In response to our previous blog post on this case, Bonsucro stated:

“(…) We do not expect Members to be perfect before they join and recognise that complex issues could exist that require dialogue and time to resolve. (…) The fact that Mitr Phol was accepted into membership (…) and remains a Member is because they are committed to continuous improvement and are working in complete transparency with us.”

Likewise, we have no expectation that business enterprises rise to the level of “perfection,” either before or after they join a multi-stakeholder initiative like Bonsucro.  However, we do expect businesses to respect basic human rights, including by providing for remediation of serious violations that they have caused.

It renders Bonsucro’s membership criteria a complete farce if the only requirement for a business to join is a commitment to ‘continuous improvement’ - from any baseline, no matter how low and reprehensible, and without any requirement to begin the process of improvement by repairing existing violations that it has caused.  By disregarding continuing violations in considering membership applications, Bonsucro wipes the human rights slate clean for companies wishing to join its club. This represents a fundamental failure of Bonsucro’s human rights due diligence responsibilities.

The fact is, over the years, Mitr Phol never showed any sign that it was willing to acknowledge the adverse impacts it caused and right its wrongs.  It never even once agreed to meet with the community to hear their grievances in person. Such behavior is antithetical to the notion of “continuous improvement.”

Multi-stakeholder initiatives like Bonsucro have proliferated in recent years, as the public demands ethical sourcing of commodities found in consumer products. But rather than representing the gold standard in environmental and social governance as they claim, experiences like ours with Bonsucro put the credibility and legitimacy of these initiatives at risk. Unless these organizations are firmly held accountable to international human rights standards, they will not only fail to push their industries towards more responsible behavior, but they will become little more than window dressing for corporate misconduct.


David Pred and Natalie Bugalski are the co-founders of Inclusive Development International.