Week of 3 August 2020
A Thai civil court has agreed to grant class-action status to a case filed by over 700 Cambodian families seeking remedy for the seizure of farmlands and razing of homes and crops by a Thai company in Cambodia; the decision by the court marks the first transboundary class-action lawsuit in Southeast Asia for adverse human rights impacts and could have implications for future corporate accountability cases in the region (Smit Tit, Hoy Mai & Others vs. Mitr Phol Co. Ltd)
The Bangkok South Civil Court in Thailand has agreed to grant class-action status to a lawsuit filed by a group of over 700 families in the community of Oddar Meanchey province in Cambodia, with the support of human rights advocacy organisations Inclusive Development International (IDI), Equitable Cambodia and LICADHO (Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights). In the case of Smit Tit, Hoy Mai & Others vs. Mitr Phol Co. Ltd, Cambodian families are suing Thailand-based sugar producer Mitr Phol in Thailand alleging forced displacement and other violations of their human rights linked to the company’s operations in Cambodia.
Reuters reports that this case is “the first class-action lawsuit filed in a Thai court by plaintiffs from another country against a Thai company operating outside Thailand.” Human rights advocates have indicated that this is a landmark ruling, as it is also the first transboundary class-action lawsuit in Southeast Asia against a corporation for human rights abuses in another country. Per Amnesty International, “[t]his case is significant from a regional business and human rights perspective as it could set an important precedent by enabling cross-border accountability for human rights abuses involving corporate actors in Southeast Asia.”
Below are some additional details about the case:
- In April 2018, 712 families representing around 3,000 people across five villages in Oddar Meanchey filed a lawsuit in a Thai civil court seeking remedy for human rights abuses committed by Mitr Phol between 2008 and 2009. Per a summary of the case by IDI, the lawsuit alleged that the company had forcibly seized farmland belonging to villagers and had razed homes, crops and community-managed forests on the basis of land concessions awarded to Mitr Phol by the Cambodian government, leaving some families homeless and without the means to support themselves. Although the land concessions were canceled by the Cambodian government in 2015, few families reported that they received their land back, and many of the complainants alleged they had received no restitution or compensation for the loss of their land and livelihoods.
- Amnesty International, which submitted an amicus brief to the Bangkok South Civil Court arguing for the communities’ right to file the lawsuit under both Thai and international human rights law, reported that the communities’ initial request for class-action status had been denied by a lower court in Thailand on grounds “including the villagers’ lack of Thai language skills, their capacity to comprehend court orders effectively, and the alleged practical difficulty of posting notices to the rural addresses of the concerned villagers in Cambodia.” Per IDI, the court’s decision to allow the case to continue as a class-action suit “ensur[es] access to justice and prevent[s] the laborious and costly process of bringing hundreds of individual lawsuits,” especially given the relative weakness of the Cambodian judicial system to hold human rights abusers to account.
- According to IDI’s summary of the case, the lawsuit was filed after community members failed to access remedy through multiple avenues over nearly a decade, including:
- Reports to local and national government officials between 2007-2009;
- Direct engagement with the company’s leadership in 2010;
- Grievances submitted to the certification scheme Better Sugarcane Initiative (now Bonsucro) in 2011, of which Mitr Phol was a member, followed by a separate complaint to the UK OECD National Contact Point alleging that Bonsucro had failed to hold Mitr Phol accountable for human rights violations (the case has been accepted by the UK NCP and is undergoing review);
- A complaint to the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand in 2013. The Commission found that Mitr Phol was responsible for human rights violations and should provide remedy to the victims despite having relinquished its claim to the land concessions in Oddar Meanchey and exiting operations there.
According to IDI, the outcome of the lawsuit is “also a key test of corporate accountability”: “Mitr Phol is the biggest sugar supplier in the region and has counted some of the world’s largest consumer brands, including Nestlé, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Mars Wrigley and Corbion, as past and current customers. While Coca-Cola took initial steps to investigate the allegations against Mitr Phol, it failed to use its leverage to compel the company to provide redress to the victims in Cambodia. Instead, in 2018, Coca-Cola informed Inclusive Development International that it no longer sourced sugar from Mitr Phol. It has never reported the termination of the supply relationship publicly.”
Surya Deva, UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, Bangkok court admits Cambodia farmers’ lawsuit against Thai sugar firm (Thomson Reuters Foundation, 31 July 2020)