IDE Research Columns


Why Did Thailand’s Former Military Government Move Swiftly to Create a National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights?

Why Did Thailand’s Former Military Government Move Swiftly to Create a National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights?

Institute of Developing Economies, JETRO

October 2023

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), unanimously endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in 2011, are a set of guidelines for states and companies to address human rights abuses in business activities. Governments are expected to formulate their National Action Plans (NAPs) to implement the UNGPs. This column discusses how and why Thailand became the first Asian country to launch its NAP in 2019. Criticized in a Universal Periodic Review by the UNHRC for its human rights abuses, the then military-led government of Thailand took the development of its NAP as an opportunity to address such criticism through strategic use of its international exposure.

What Is an NAP on Business and Human Rights?

The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) unanimously endorsed the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) in 2011. The UNGPs are a set of guidelines for states and companies to prevent, address, and remedy human rights abuses committed in the course of business. The UNGPs consist of three pillars: the state duty to protect human rights, the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, and access to remedy.

A National Action Plan (NAP) is a policy document formulated by a government to indicate how it plans to implement the UNGPs. In its report transmitted to the UN General Assembly by the Secretary General in 2014, the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights (UNWG) recommended that states initiate inclusive multistakeholder processes to develop NAPs. Led by European countries, governments worldwide have drafted and launched their NAPs. As of writing, 26 states had produced stand-alone NAPs; four states created a “Business and Human Rights” chapter in their existing human rights national action plans; and 21 states are in the process of developing an NAP or have committed to doing so.1 In 2013, the UK became the first state to launch an NAP, revising it in 2016.

While European countries have generally been swifter to adopt NAPs than countries in other regions, they have so far been less active in revising them than in creating them. Except for Switzerland and Poland, most European NAPs remain as they were drafted in approximately the mid-2010s, more than five years ago, and do not cover the current year and future years.

In 2021, 10 years after the UNHRC endorsed the UNGPs, the UNWG reaffirmed that states should develop NAPs to implement the UNGPs and called on those states that had already adopted NAPs to review and update them on a regular basis.2 In this regard, Thailand is a model state as the first Asian country to launch an NAP (2019–23). Furthermore, Thailand has completed drafting its second NAP (2023–27), which will soon be launched.

Why Did Thailand Become the First Asian Country to Launch an NAP?

While many European countries had already published their NAPs, no Asian country had done so until Thailand drafted and launched its NAP in October 2019. The vigor with which Thailand proceeded to create an NAP despite its then military-led government is noteworthy. My research on Thailand’s NAP started at the time of the 2016 Asia Regional Forum on Business and Human Rights in Doha, where I liaised with members of the Thai delegation. In that forum, experts and officials from various Asian countries discussed why Asia lagged behind Europe in creating NAPs.3 Some argued that human rights were a Western, not Asian, originated concept, which highlighted the need for translation into the local context. Others noted that lack of political had delayed the formulation of NAPs. Considering the fact that Thailand was criticized for human rights abuse in a Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the UNHRC since the military took regime in 2014, it seems unrealistic that Thailand would draft an NAP, which would commit it to protecting human rights consistent with the UNGPs. Indeed, Thailand was given a yellow card by the EU for its illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing with a focus on forced labor and other serious abuses involving fishing practices. US Trafficking in Persons Report list Thailand as a Tier-3 country, whose government does not fully meet the minimum standards set forth in the US Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act and is not making significant efforts to do so.

However, Thailand took the development of its NAP as an opportunity to respond to such international criticism. In the 2016 UPR of Thailand, Sweden urged Thailand to prevent human rights abuses and recommended drafting an NAP. In 2019, when Thailand presented its NAP at the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva, a high-ranking Swedish official, who sat next to Thailand, applauded the initiative. Thailand also used the process of drafting its NAP to demonstrate its leadership among ASEAN member states. Even now, Thailand is the only ASEAN member state with an NAP, whereas Malaysia and Indonesia have been struggling for several years to prepare one. Thailand also hosts the UN Responsible Business and Human Rights Forum, Asia-Pacific, every summer.

What Is Special about Thailand’s NAP?

Previous European NAPs have primarily focused on how their business addresses human rights risks in third countries that form part of their extended investment and supply chains. In contrast, Thailand, as an investment-hosting state, commits in its NAP to increase foreign investment by creating trust among foreign investors that Thailand will adhere to international human rights standards.4

Furthermore, Thailand’s NAP highlights certain priority areas where Thailand had been accused of human rights infringement, which include migrant workers and human rights defender issues. Thailand’s NAP addresses the issue of strategic lawsuits against public participation, which represent a serious attempt to intimidate human rights defenders and hinder sound stakeholder engagement. Actually, the OECD Multinational Enterprises (MNE) Guidelines, revised in June 2023, added a provision to prohibit reprisal by a company against human rights defenders who raise concerns about adverse impacts by the company.

Are NAPs an Effective Tool to Implement UNGPs?

Thailand has been seen as a model country for NAP drafting; however, it is not free from criticism. For example, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), a nongovernmental organization advocating justice and human rights, noted the lack of evident and tangible progress in the implementation of Thailand’s NAP, the inefficacy of the NAP’s monitoring mechanism, and the legally nonbinding nature of the NAP itself. The ICJ further indicated that the terms specified in the NAP as interpreted by responsible authorities might not always follow international law and standards.5

Thailand has finalized drafting its second NAP, which lists the same four key priority areas as the first one: 1) labor; 2) community, land, natural resources, and environment; 3) human rights defenders; and 4) cross-border investment and multinational enterprises. The plan has been in limbo, awaiting adoption by the cabinet, the fate of which was uncertain due to political turmoil following the May 2023 general election. With the appointment of a new prime minister in late August, the second NAP will be approved by the new cabinet before long. Once formalized, Thailand’s second NAP will be closely watched for what it achieves.

NAPs Will Be Tested

The UNGPs themselves are not legally binding as indicated by the name “principles”; therefore, governments need to express their commitment by formulating their NAPs, rather than merely leaving the principles on paper. Otherwise, the demand for a legally binding international treaty to regulate MNEs globally will increase. As mentioned, European governments seem somewhat inactive in revising their NAPs. Recent trends in mandatory human rights due diligence legislation in the EU might lessen their interest in revising NAPs per se. As explained in the UNGPs, such legislation is an option among “a smart mix” of policy measures—both mandatory and voluntary—to foster business respect for human rights; however, if such legislation lacks multistakeholder engagement, it will not achieve the purpose of the UNGPs.

Whereas European governments seem somewhat inactive in revising their NAPs, a growing number of governments in the Global South are expressing their commitment to create NAPs, with the support of international donors. With funding from the Japanese government, the United Nations Development Program helps 17 target countries from Africa, Latin America, and Asia develop policies to tackle business-related human rights abuses and implement UNGPs. That so many countries have committed to developing NAPs is a welcome trend; however, launching an NAP is not an end in itself, but merely a means to fulfill the state’s duty under UNGPs. Governments are no longer given unreserved praise for creating NAPs. The process and the effectiveness thereof will be thoroughly scrutinized. Japan, the second Asian country to create an NAP, is not exempt from scrutiny. As Japan’s current NAP runs from 2020 to 2025, the year 2023 is a time for mid-term review and preparation for the second version. Further research on how to measure the effectiveness of NAPs is needed.

Author’s Note:

This column is primarily based on the following study: Yamada, Miwa. 2021. “Thailand’s National Action Plan Based on UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: Why Did Thailand Become the First Asian Country to Launch Its NAP?” Ajia Keizai, 62(2): 2–23 (in Japanese)

About the Author

Miwa Yamada leads Policy Proposal Research Project on Business and Human Rights at IDE since 2014. She served as a Rapporteur at the 2016 Asia Regional Forum on Business and Human Rights, Doha and engaged in ILO-OECD Responsible Supply Chains in Asia Project in 2018–20. She is serving as a member of the Expert Committee for the Sustainable EXPO 2025 in Osaka. Current research interests include human rights due diligence in supply chains with a focus on migrant workers in Japan and Asian countries, implementation of UNGPs in practice, and human rights risks and responsibilities in government and private-sector co-financing projects.

Other Articles by This Author

Yamada, Miwa. 2022. Responsible Supply Chains in Vehicle Parts Industry Case Studies and Challenges. Geneva: ILO.

Yamada, Miwa. 2021. “Human Rights as Foundation of Stakeholder Capitalism—Policy Measures to Promote Corporate Responsibility to Respect Human Rights.” Japan SPOTLIGHT, May/June.

  2. UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, Raising the Ambition - Increasing the Pace UNGPs 10+ Roadmap for the Next Decade of Business and Human Rights (Geneva: United Nations, 2021),
  4. Ministry of Justice, Thailand, 1st National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights (2019-2022), 2019,
  5. “Thailand: Government and Companies Must Effectively Implement Commitments under the National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights,” International Commission of Jurists, updated on September 22, 2022,

*The views expressed in the columns are those of the author(s) and do not represent the views of IDE or the institutions with which the authors are affiliated.
**Thumbnail image: UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré