Human rights potholes riddle New Silk Road project

Chinese companies and banks singled out amid concerns about Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative

Human rights abuses litter China’s Belt and Road project, tainting Beijing’s green credentials.

A report by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has highlighted more than 670 violations against Chinese companies operating “overseas” between 2013 and 2020.

Major mining companies were singled out with Peru, the world’s second-largest copper producer, named as a hotspot. China’s neighbor Myanmar, a leading supplier of tin and rare earth ore, also suffered from exploitation.

“Over one-third of the allegations against Chinese mining businesses overseas were related to prolonged conflicts between large China-backed multinational mining companies and local communities in Latin America and Papua New Guinea,” the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre pointed out in its study released this week.

Key findings:

  • The independent human rights group reported that 679 human rights violations were reported between 2013 and 2020.
  • The cases were linked to Chinese companies operating abroad.
  • Human rights risks were particularly high in metals and mining.
  • They made up 35% of the allegations.
  • Chinese renewable energy investment in Belt and Road projects also came under the spotlight. 
  • Human rights risks in the sector made up 13% of the cases reported.
A hierarchy chart. Graphic: Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

What was said: “Despite commitments to openness and transparency, five Chinese companies had a very low response rate when invited by the [Business & Human Rights] Resource Centre to address human rights allegations made against their overseas operations,” the report said. 

Delve deeper: The study was published 24 hours after Human Rights Watch revealed on August 10 the fallout from a Chinese-funded hydroelectric dam in Cambodia. 

Livelihoods threatened: “Completed in 2018, [the dam] has undermined the lives and livelihoods of thousands of Indigenous and ethnic minority people,” Human Rights Watch said in the 137-page report, entitled Underwater: Human Rights Impacts of a China Belt and Road Project in Cambodia.

Mass flooding: “The Lower Sesan 2 dam, one of Asia’s widest dams, flooded large areas upstream of the confluence of the Sesan and Srepok Rivers, two tributaries of the Mekong River,” the study said.

Multi-million-dollar project: “Chinese government banks provided most of the financing, reportedly budgeted at approximately US$800 million,” the Human Rights Watch report added.

Calls for reform: “The Chinese government needs to drastically reform Belt and Road infrastructure development financing to prevent abuses in other projects undertaken in countries like Cambodia, where the government has a long track record of violating its citizens’ rights,” John Sifton, the Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said.

China Factor comment: The Belt and Road investment plan is President Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy initiative. Branded as debt-trap diplomacy, it is now embroiled in allegations of human rights violations.