The Voluntary Principles at 10

Commentary, 17 March 2010

By Bennett Freeman

As the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights plenary convenes in London this week, a pivotal agenda awaits participants that will frame the issues and decisions which must be made if the Voluntary Principles (VPs) are to fulfill their potential a decade after the original dialogue was launched. A long-time friend of the process, I am more optimistic than at any time in the last several years that the determination and leadership necessary to move the VPs forward is finally coming together.

A lack of focused, energetic and accountable leadership allowed the VPs process to drift into a governance crisis, at times paralysis, from 2006 until early 2009. That disarray in the process distracted focus on—and even appeared to discredit—the concrete implementation progress made on the ground in priority countries on the part of many companies.

Now the gap between governance process and implementation progress can be closed and the accountability architecture of this once-flagship multi-stakeholder initiative—still the key global human rights standard for extractives companies operating in conflict zones—can finally be completed.

Three critical factors now set the stage for the VPs to deepen their impact and finally establish their credibility over nine years after their launch in December 2000:

Participation Criteria

First, the Oslo plenary last spring finally resolved the fractious issue of “participation criteria” for governments and agreed interim reporting criteria applicable for 2009. These outcomes, following the 2007 resolution of the equally contentious issue of establishing a complaint/expulsion mechanism for non-compliance, ended the rancor that had gripped the process beginning shortly after the January 2006 plenary in London.

Through a combination of sheer exhaustion and cool pragmatism, company, NGO and government participants alike began to rediscover common ground around the common interests in balancing human rights safeguards with security arrangements that had first brought them together in 2000—and to agree on some of the fundamental issues still to be addressed and resolved if the VPs were not only to survive but thrive.

Greater operational relevance

Second, there is a simple recognition that the VPs have greater operational relevance in more countries than ever. While the civil war in Colombia has cooled and the Aceh conflict in Indonesia ended, they remain critical in both countries but above all in Nigeria with the intensification of violent conflict in the Niger Delta since late 2005. Indeed, the Delta is probably the most volatile crucible for the VPs in the world as the political crisis in that country continues and the prospects for a lasting cease-fire let alone political reconciliation and economic development remain uncertain.

Plus, the VPs are more important than expected in a number of other countries around the world such as in the Andean region (Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia), West and Central Africa (the DRC, Ghana and Gabon); and the Asia-Pacific (especially Papua New Guinea)—and for this reason Peru, DRC and Ghana are under active consideration as new priority countries.

Additional Resources

Third, there is an expectation that the new political leadership in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the State Department (from which the VPs originated) can give a decisive impetus to completing the tasks of finalizing that overall accountability architecture and gaining the operational resources — diplomatic and financial — that are necessary to strengthen implementation on the ground in priority countries in conjunction with host governments. Moreover, the entry of Canada, Colombia and Switzerland alongside the U.S., UK, Norway and the Netherlands can contribute to those resources as well as attract new companies and NGOs to an increasingly inclusive global process.

Assistant Secretary Mike Posner and his State Department team will take over the chair of the Voluntary Principles plenary process and Steering Committee following the 18-19 March plenary in London. They are poised not only to chair meetings and calls, but to drive an agenda and provide the kind of leadership that is urgently needed to tackle several key issues that will, over the next year, determine the continuing viability of the VPs as a multi-stakeholder initiative in its current form. And they will have their work cut out for them, with the clock ticking towards the Washington plenary that State will chair in early 2011.

The VPs Secretariat must, at last, receive a clear mandate and adequate resources to carry it out—with different configurations on the table. The governments and companies must reach into their budgets to lift funding beyond the paltry levels at which it has long languished, or otherwise accept that the process cannot be sustained. At the same time, careful but urgent consideration must be given to a long-term governance structure to replace the unwieldy, rigidly consensus-driven plenary process that may have worked when the VPs started as a robust and innovative dialogue in 2000 but cannot provide either the leadership or the accountability that a contemporary multi-stakeholder initiative requires in 2010 and beyond. Transition in 2011 to an EITI-style board is the most obvious path for the VPs, not least since it is a model familiar to so many of the same companies as well as governments.

No less critical to the prospects for sustaining the VPs as an accountable and effective multi-stakeholder initiative is the adoption of some reasonable and credible form of public reporting. There is no multi-stakeholder initiative worth the name without it, and the VPs can no longer be the exception.

Building on the on the criteria adopted for public reporting last year, the new U.S. chair will no doubt drive hard to develop an agreed methodology and timeline while permitting and even encouraging individual companies to report in public in some form in 2010 at their discretion while such criteria are established. Some degree of non-aggregated, company-specific reporting (by company name) can and must be developed that does not put companies at undue risk with respect to either the security of their personnel and facilities, or their potential exposure to litigation in connection with specific incidents.

Companies that are actually implementing the VPs should have plenty to report in connection with training of company personnel and contractors, briefings with host country governments and security forces, and stakeholder engagement with local communities.

This agenda sounds daunting. But it is achievable because most committed VPs participants among the three pillars—governments, companies and NGOs— accept that the time has come to complete the work of construction and to get on with the business of implementation for a battle-scarred initiative that has yet to prove fully its mettle on the ground where it matters most.

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