Today, the region’s richest and most powerful meet for the start of the World Economic Forum on Asean at the Sokha Hotel on the Chroy Changva peninsula in Phnom Penh, the site of protest in November 2015 and the subject of a land dispute with the local community.
About 20 km away is Prey Sar prison, where four staff of Cambodia’s oldest human rights organization, Adhoc, are being detained without trial on charges widely believed to be politically motivated. In the same prison is land rights activist Tep Vanny, imprisoned for her role as a community leader challenging corruption and unjust evictions. Meanwhile, a journalist on Sunday returned to the U.S. in fear of his safety, after a court summons was issued for his arrest related to a prison visit he made to see political prisoners. Trade unionists likewise face intimidation and prosecution for unfair charges.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) should not turn a blind eye to the proliferation of rights abuses and the narrowing freedom for civic action and dissent in its host country. Silence or inaction would be at odds with its stated mission.
WEF’s mission includes engaging with “political, business, academic and other leaders of society in collaborative efforts to shape global, regional and industry agendas,” and to work with stakeholders in defining “challenges, solutions and actions.” Thus, it has an interest in understanding the region and being informed by a wide range of stakeholders, including those with views that challenge the status quo. This becomes a problem if key members of civil society are being silenced. With the current trend of suppression of freedoms, communities and workers are losing important channels for exposing human rights abuses—economic actors cannot rely on this silence, or assume that all is well just because nobody is able to object.
This year’s WEF on Asean has a particular focus on the region’s young population and appetite for new technology as engines of future growth. Patterns of repression show how the youth of Cambodia and Southeast Asia are under threat of living in a society where ideas are not shared freely, freedom of thought is restricted, and opposing ideas, instead of being challenged, are suppressed—hardly fertile ground for economic growth.
WEF’s 2017 Global Risks Report identifies fraying rule of law and declining civic freedoms as global risks that have deep implications for business and society. These risks need to be mitigated—especially as Asean aspires to be a “people-centered and people-oriented” community, and in view of its economic goals. There had been signs in previous years of the region leaving behind its authoritarian past. Ironically, member states that were seen as democratic then are currently facing turmoil—making the issue of protecting rights and freedoms even more urgent.
A critique of the WEF by the Transnational Institute describes its main purpose as being able to “function as a socializing institution for the emerging global elite.” It says that the WEF promotes common ideas and serves common interests: their own. To counter this charge, WEF needs to demonstrate its relevance to business and civic freedoms.
Indeed, even a critical interpretation of WEF’s purpose makes the case for some level of responsibility to further study the links between civic space and business, including quantifying the risks of a shrinking civic space in terms of lost economic and social opportunities.
This week’s WEF on Asean in Phnom Penh is an opportunity for economic actors to acknowledge a wider responsibility toward an open civic space. Those attending the events have at their disposal a powerful platform to make their position known with regard to the shrinking freedoms and proliferation of rights abuses in the region, as well as take steps to ensure that systems are in place to channel concerns linked to economic activities—if not out of a moral imperative, at least because it is good for economic growth.
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