Special economic zones: a rights perspective

Began August 2017

Governments are establishing special economic zones to promote industrialisation. But the zones have raised concerns over land expropriations and poor labour conditions. IIED works with partners to generate evidence and inform policy at national and international levels.

A concerete mixing lorry drives under an arch that has the words 'Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone' written on it

The Khan Posenchey Special Economic Zone in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, houses fashion, food, electronic products and more for local and regional consumption (Photo: Chhor Sokunthea/World Bank via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Special economic zones (SEZs) have spread rapidly over the past 20 years, including in many low- and middle-income countries keen to attract private investment for industrial development.

But while much debate has focused on their economic performance and success factors, there are concerns over the expropriation of land, the compression of labour rights and lost public revenues.

These concerns are partly rooted in the legal regimes that underpin SEZs – their failure to protect affected people, their exempting SEZs from national laws or their weak arrangements to ensure compliance.

At the same time, many activists have mobilised the law to contest SEZs and their impacts.

What is IIED doing?

IIED works with partners to generate evidence on the social, economic and environmental dimensions of SEZ law and policy, including research and policy work on: 

  • How the creation and operation of SEZs affect land rights both within and around the zones
  • Human rights and labour rights in SEZs, and
  • The articulation between national SEZ policies and international economic law.


Special Economic Zones: engines of development or sites of exploitation?, Lorenzo Cotula, Liliane Mouan (2018), Briefing

Additional resources

Labour rights in Special Economic Zones: between unilateralism and transnational law diffusion, Lorenzo Cotula, Liliane Mouan (2021), Journal of International Economic Law

The state of exception and the law of the global economy: a conceptual and empirico-legal inquiry (PDF), Lorenzo Cotula (2017), Transnational Legal Theory


Our work on SEZs and land rights is supported by donors including:

Agence Française de Développement (AFD)


Over the years, we have collaborated with a range of partners, including:


Comité Technique Foncier et Développement (CTFD)

Enda Pronat

Observatoire de l’Amenagement du Territoire et du Foncier (Madagascar)


Was this page useful to you?