Commodities

From Deal Maker to Diplomat? Business and Human Rights Questions for Rex Tillerson

19 December 2016

By Scott Jerbi, Senior Advisor, Policy & Outreach, IHRB

Image: lm otero/AP

What does the nomination of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to be the next United States Secretary of State mean for the business and human rights agenda?

The selection of Mr. Tillerson is the latest move by a President-elect who campaigned on the promise that the US government will be more effective and efficient if private sector know-how and resources are applied across the board to public policy challenges. Donald Trump’s election victory was due in no small part to his status as a business man who claims he is unwilling to accept the traditional ways of Washington, DC. His pledge to “drain the swamp” of DC insiders, ease corporate regulations, and bring management expertise to the nation’s capital convinced many supporters that he could chart a new course for a country they believed was moving in the wrong direction at home and abroad.

"These are just some of the questions that need to be asked to determine if a recognised business deal maker can also be an effective US diplomat who will be committed to promoting human rights, shared prosperity, and sustainable development around the world."

Only time will tell how the President-elect’s many business interests and views on the role of the private sector in today’s world will impact global politics and ongoing efforts to shape a more just and sustainable future for all people. But it does seem safe to say that the next four years will see more business executives in key public leadership positions than perhaps any time in modern history. It will also see business leaders advising the President on a range of policy issues.

As CEO of the largest publicly traded oil company in the world, Rex Tillerson’s nomination has raised many serious questions from both sides of the political divide. Exxon has been referred to as a “private empire” with its own interests – a giant on the world scene that functions as a “corporate state within the American state.” Over the past decade, Tillerson has negotiated new business deals with government leaders on nearly every continent. US Senate confirmation hearings will rightly probe Mr. Tillerson’s views on these business dealings, and seek to better understand his positions on other critical topics such as climate change and broader US responsibilities in the 21st century.

     
"[T]he next four years will see more business executives in key public leadership positions than perhaps any time in modern history. It will also see business leaders advising the President on a range of policy issues."

Given his long career at Exxon, and the views of the President-elect on the importance of business, we should also take some time to explore Mr. Tillerson’s perspectives on the role of US Secretary of State and the US Government in fostering responsible business practices as part of strategies to promote greater peace, security, and shared prosperity for all. The business and human rights agenda has largely been a bipartisan issue in the US over past decades with different administrations taking their own initiatives. It makes sense therefore to ask how senior leaders in the Trump administration will look at this important subject.

Here are a few ideas for questions we should be asking to give us insights into Mr. Tillerson’s approach:

1. Exxon's Experience with Human Rights

Exxon’s website states:

“We believe that understanding and addressing the interests of communities where we operate, and the potential impact of our operations on them, is critical to maintaining a sustainable business… ExxonMobil operates in environments where engagement with host governments is needed to support security and respect for human rights in local operations… Our approach to human rights is consistent with the United Nations (UN) Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which outline the distinct, yet complementary, roles of government and business with regard to human rights: the government’s duty to protect human rights, and business’ responsibility to respect them.”

  • How have you sought to integrate the corporate responsibility to respect human rights as set out in the UN Guiding Principles into your company’s complex operations globally?
  • What has changed in the way your company does business because of your stated commitment to the UN Guiding Principles?
  • Where will you seek to prioritise the government’s role in advancing the business and human rights agenda, including with respect to the national action plan on responsible business conduct that the Obama Administration has put forward?

2. Exxon's Experience with Industry and Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives

ExxonMobil has been a participant in the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights initiative since 2002 and part of the initiative’s steering committee since 2015.

  • What are your thoughts on strengthening corporate human rights performance on issues such as community engagement, security, and conflict prevention through this multi-stakeholder initiative?
  • What do you see as the responsibilities of the US government and other governments in addressing human rights abuses linked to extractive industry operations?
  • Should the US government do more to support approaches like the Voluntary Principles that bring business, civil society, and governments together to address human rights and other governance challenges? What other industry sectors and human rights issues do you think the US government should be advocating to adopt approaches akin to the Voluntary Principles initiative?

3. Exxon's Experience Fostering Economic and Social Development

Business is a critical actor in fostering economic and social development. ExxonMobil has been part of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative to address the link between corporate payments to governments and corruption which undermines development prospects. You have also invested heavily in some of the world’s poorest countries most in need of capacity building, good governance, and tax revenues to finance a better future for their people.

  • What have you learned from working in countries like Chad facing complex environmental and social challenges? Has Exxon made a positive difference and how do you measure your role in development progress in such contexts?
  • How should the US government incentivise companies to address human rights risks in such contexts and be active participants in partnerships for public goods in ways that include the most vulnerable?
  • What more should the US government do to promote investment in sustainable energy globally?

These are just some of the questions that need to be asked to determine if a recognised business deal maker can also be an effective US diplomat who will be committed to promoting human rights, shared prosperity, and sustainable development around the world.

 

Image: lm otero/AP

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