Ethical Performance
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Human rights principles suffer from ten-year itch

May 2010

Adherents to the business-focused Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights have celebrated the tenth anniversary of their foundation by agreeing a ‘vision statement’ pledging to strengthen their application and influence.

The global principles – adopted in 2000 as a framework to help extractive sector companies tackle security and human rights issues in their operations – have been criticised in recent years for lacking effectiveness and reach.

However, the five governments, 17 companies, nine NGOs and three observer groups that have signed up to the principles believe they have been a qualified success, and that with more effort they can play a bigger part in promoting respect for human rights in business.

The statement, released in London, says the principles should be strengthened by, among other things, increasing the number of participants and requiring all supporters to be more transparent about their activities.

At the statement launch, Gry Larsen, state secretary of the Norwegian government, which has been a key backer of the principles, said many companies ‘have made remarkable progress’ by using them – but that there has been too little quality reporting of what they have been doing.

Larsen said: ‘We need to put our heads together and figure out a fair and effective way for businesses to report on security and human rights issues. The principles will become less relevant if we fail to do so.’

He also suggested the principles ‘need a home, a proper secretariat’, rather than the  current administrative support provided by the International Business Leaders’ Forum in London and Business for Social Responsibility in San Francisco.

Outside commentators are also urging improvements. Salil Tripathi, policy director at the UK-based Institute for Human Rights and Business, said it would be ‘legitimate to ask if they have realised their full potential’ and argued that the reach of the principles ‘needs to be wider geographically’, and to apply to other industry sectors.

Bennett Freeman, senior vice-president of sustainability research and policy at US-based Calvert Investments, who was involved in creating the principles with the British and US governments, said he was optimistic they will now be more widely followed.

‘A lack of focused, energetic and accountable leadership allowed the principles process to drift into a governance crisis – even at times paralysis – from 2006 until early 2009,’ he said. ‘But I’m more optimistic than at any time in the last several years that the determination and leadership necessary to move the principles forward is finally coming together.’

Freeman said the recent creation of a disciplinary system to punish laggards had been a significant step forward. However, he said participants must urgently consider replacing the ‘unwieldy, rigidly consensus-driven plenary process’ that has attempted to oversee the principles since 2000. ‘That may have worked when the principles started ... but it cannot provide either the leadership or the accountability that a contemporary multi-stakeholder initiative requires,’ he said.

Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights | Global | Human rights

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