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Sabahan youth calls for responsible business practices with communities in mind

When asked about the largest contributor to climate change before the engagement began, youth participants of the recent engagement by B+HR Asia and YELL in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah responded that human beings and industry or “factories” are responsible.

Prompted further to understand how young people link business, climate change and human rights, their sentiments reflect a blend of optimism, concern, and a call for responsibility. With participants as young as 18 years old to young people in the workforce at 29 years old, their opinions mirror the experiences they have as young people living in various districts of Sabah, including Sandakan, Penampang and Kudat.

Balance, Harmony & Justice in Business, Human Rights & the Environment

A shared desire for balance, harmony, and justice in the relationship between business, human rights and the environment was reflected in their responses. Participants suggest that cooperation, protection, and meeting needs of communities should be central to this relationship, advocating for an approach that considers economic interests, gender-sensitive human rights and environmental sustainability. 

One participant articulates this sentiment by stating, “Hubungan yang berkaitan rapat untuk mendekatkan mereka dalam sebuah perniagaan yang untung” (The relationship [between business, human rights and the environment] should be closely linked to bring them together in profitable business). This response recognises that aligning business interests with human rights considerations is essential in maintaining business sustainability. When asked about the purpose of businesses, another participant stated, “Ask yourself whether what you do will be helpful or useful to the community. Do they (the local community) need it?” This sentiment further calls for businesses to address community needs over profit-driven plans by prioritising mutual collaboration. 

Participants demonstrated an understanding that sustainable practices would mutually benefit both businesses and the natural environment. A written response emphasising this point stated a need to “create more sustainable business models and approaches”. In a verbal exchange, someone elaborated that it was unsustainable for businesses to rely on finite environmental resources as not only does it damage the environment, but such businesses will not be able to operate once these resources are no longer accessible.

Concern for the negative impacts of businesses

Many express a concern for the negative impacts of businesses on human rights and the environment. They point out instances where businesses operate without consent from local communities, harming the environment and the economy. Several participants emphasised the need to acknowledge and uphold human rights, cautioning against pursuing profit at the expense of basic rights. One even responded with the hashtag “#capitalist” to criticise negligent business practices in the pursuit of wealth and profit. Another response acknowledged that the dynamics between business and human rights can also be complex and nuanced as they can be complementary at times, but contradictory in other instances.

As the organising team encouraged participants to share their personal experiences, there was a heightened awareness of the link between business activities, environmental degradation, and human rights violations. They acknowledged that the impact of business on the environment could directly affect people’s access to basic needs, such as clean water, constituting a human rights issue.

An anecdote that stood out was the rise of tourism on several islands in Sabah such as Mabul Island and Gaya Island, which had brought significant challenges in waste management. With an increase in waste generation paired with a lack of adequate facilities and systems to manage waste disposal, much of the waste ends up in the sea. The participant shared that if this continues to happen, it would lead to serious environmental degradation that harms the livelihoods of local communities that rely on fishing for income, as well as potential health hazards from contaminated seafood. Nodding in agreement, other participants acknowledged that this disruption of access to food and livelihoods constitutes a direct violation of human rights, specifically the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment (R2HE).

Employing a human rights-based approach

Having been introduced to the concepts of right-holders and duty-bearers, participants resoundingly responded that active participation of right-holders in engaging duty-bearers is needed to address abuses in human rights and the environment. Most opt to communicate their concerns to all stakeholders involved and engage in consultations with duty-bearers in the event of a violation, while some choose to use existing response mechanisms, if available, to communicate their concerns.

As participants contemplate their future roles as duty-bearers, their reflections observe a sense of responsibility, empathy, and dedication to serving their community. Many envision themselves as arbitrators of conflicts who will resolve issues with empathy and rationality. Central to their vision is the concept of protection – one of the three pillars of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. They recognise the weight of their responsibilities as future duty-bearers and are deeply motivated to uphold both the duty to protect and responsibility to respect human rights.

Some urged themselves to remain self-aware and mindful of the impact of their actions on others, acknowledging the influence they will hold as duty-bearers, with community at the heart of their aspirations. Many view themselves as representatives of a collective voice in Sabah, entrusted with the task of championing the needs and concerns of their local communities. This includes upholding fairness and accountability by ensuring decisions are made with integrity.

Prioritising environmental protection 

Environmental stewardship also emerged as a priority when several participants highlighted the relationship and close link between business, human rights and environmental sustainability, pledging to make responsible and sustainable decisions for current and future generations. This is especially crucial when several participants were personally affected by environmental degradation as a result of industrial development in their communities. 

One participant highlighted their experience as a pedestrian and inhaling smoke from a public bus. This led to their hospitalisation the next day due to asthma. They expressed their dilemma about the situation, torn between the imperative to safeguard their health by intervening to stop the harmful emissions from the public bus, and the realisation that doing so might impact the driver’s ability to earn a living.

Another participant shared about the effects of the Pan-Borneo highway on their community at Papar. They highlighted how the construction and subsequent development have increased the vulnerability of children to respiratory illness from fine particles and contributed to the increased temperature of the surrounding environment. While acknowledging the positive aspects of development, such as the introduction of new recreational facilities, they emphasised the difficult balance between advancement and adversity. Listen to the audio clip here.

The experiences shared by these young people leads one to wonder: Is there a solution to mitigate the negative impacts on the environment and public health in the journey to progress and development? Why should young people have to choose between a healthy environment and economic well-being?

This engagement was organised by Business + Human Rights Asia (B+HR Asia) in collaboration with the Youth Environment Living Labs (YELL) to engage young people’s perspectives on Business, Human Rights and the Environment in Sabah. The event took place on 4th of May, 2023 at Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. 17 participants between the ages of 18-30 from various districts in Sabah attended the engagement.

Special thanks to Jehan Wan Aziz (UNDP Malaysia) and Lim Su-Jin (UNICEF Malaysia) for their input and support in shaping this article.

Learn more:
Engaging Youth Perspectives on Business, Human Rights and the Environment in Sabah
UNDP Business and Human Rights
UNDP Business and Human Rights on X
Asia in Focus YouTube Channel