Summary of Assistant Secretary Posner’s Remarks at the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights

Geneva, Switzerland

Excerpts from Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael H. Posner’s remarks at the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights

  • I want to say a special thanks to John Ruggie who has been a real visionary in this field. He’s a man who combines, diligence, intelligence persuasiveness, perseverance and also a real sense of practicality. With the Guiding Principles he’s moved a discussion that had many disparate parts. He gave it coherence over the years that he worked on these issues, and brought us to the place we are today.
  • When Eleanor Roosevelt and others adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights they had no idea that this discussion would lead in the direction we take it today. As John Ruggie said, the discussion that we’re having today was amplified by the 1990s, the growth of market systems, globalization, and today, 20 years later, I think we’re in a third phase where we’re really trying in a practical way with the Guiding Principles as a justification to begin to look at how we create rules of the road both for governments, for companies and for non-governmental organizations operating in this space.
  • In 1948 Eleanor Roosevelt had no idea that the world of non-governmental actors would become so important. Today in these halls, diplomats from around the world deal with the issue of terrorism with groups that have no allegiance to any state. That’s part of our 21st Century mandate as diplomats. They had no idea that there would be tens of thousands of non-governmental civil society organizations doing things that perhaps long ago people would have said were the domain of states. And they had no idea that companies would become, private actors would become so important in the economic sphere.
  • Five Principles for Governments:
    1. Duty to Protect: Governments have a duty to protect human rights. We have to establish rules, regulations, and oversight mechanisms. We have to make our courts available to make sure that the rights of our citizens and people living in our territories are protected.
    2. Multilateral Coordination: Secondly, we have international obligations as states to work individually and collectively to make sure that those states that fail to protect rights in fact live up to those international obligations.
    3. Guide Posts for Non-State Actors: Thirdly, there are some situations where rights are challenged, we need to be thinking about the responsibilities of companies that are in our jurisdiction. We have in the case of Burma a set of new reporting guidelines, reporting rules for U.S. companies doing business with the government in transition where there’s lots of optimism, , but the need to invest responsibly.
    4. What Not to Do as Governments: Next, I think it’s important for governments to know also what not to do. A good example would be a meeting happening this week in Dubai of the International Telegraphic Union looking at how to regulate the Internet. The watch word for us is that the Internet needs to be open. It needs to be a place of free speech, free assembly, free association. It needs to be available commercially as a place for open exchange of ideas, for innovation. Governments need to know also when not to act or not to act imprudently.
    5. Consideration of Company Responsibility: Lastly, I want to turn to what the role of companies should be because essentially this is a discussion both for governments and importantly for individual companies, and so many of you in this room represent the private sector.
  • This is just the beginning. This goes beyond notions of corporate social responsibility. It goes beyond charity. It’s really a question of what are the obligations both of states and companies to fulfill this mandate and to make it real. The work has really just begun.
  • I want to suggest five simple principles that ought to be a starting point for what you do and very much in line with John Ruggie’s notion that we’ve gone from a discussion of mandated standards and laws. That was clearly, as he said, more than the system could bear, but we need to go beyond voluntary agreements that don’t go far enough. So the question is what is this responsibility to respect rights?
  • Five Principles for the Private Sector
    1. Develop broad principles: One is that within your own company—you need to be taking stock and saying, “what are the broad principles on human rights that govern your business?” This needs to be taken at a senior level. If the senior management of your company is not involved, it’s not going to work. This is not a public relations exercise, it’s not a legal exercise; it has to do with the values and underlying principles of how you work.
    2. Develop internal systems: Secondly, you need to develop, once you’ve got the broad principles, internal systems that make the principles real. This requires people, it requires resources, it requires real leadership. It requires a company to say, “we’re going to change the way in which we do business to reflect this new reality and the rules of the road for the 21st Century.”
    3. Develop internal benchmarks: Third, you need to develop internal benchmarks in order to measure your progress. There need to be metrics as you have in every other aspect of your business, and it’s not enough just to look at process. You have to look at the outcome. What’s the effect of what you’re doing on real people in real time? You’ve got to measure the ways in which you are operating and how it’s affecting the people within your ambit.
    4. Work with external stakeholders: Fourth, it’s important to work with external stakeholders. So many companies say we’re going to initiate a pilot project. We’re going to figure out how to do this. It simply doesn’t work. There are so many lessons to be learned from NGOs, from academics, from social investors. You need to be willing to get into that discussion however messy it may be.
    5. Act collectively: Fifth, ideally you need to think about acting collectively and figure out how you can make a difference not only individually as a company, but within in your industry.
      • In the coming two days you’re going to hear from people like Auret Van Heerden of the Fair Labor Association who’s worked with the apparel and footwear industries, now with Apple in the high tech industry, at Foxconn, working to figure out what are the right labor practices in the global supply chain.
      • I commend the companies, governments, and NGOs that have worked with the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights involving the extractive industries. Companies like BHP Billiton and Newmont Mining. Companies that have come to the table—there are now 19, and there are seven or eight governments. Australia and Colombia are coming into the fold. This is an effort to look at the security practices in the extractive industry. Not individually, but collectively.
      • I commend the companies that have come to the Global Network Initiative to look at information technology and the importance of privacy and internet freedom. Companies like Google and Microsoft and Yahoo and Facebook.
      • Finally, in the agriculture sector. One of the things we’ve done recently is to look through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, mandated by a congressional initiative to look at issues of child labor and forced labor in agriculture. These are important subjects. No company can go it alone.
  • So I commend you all for being here. This is an important moment, but it really is a beginning. The Principles that John and the working group have put together provide a justification. We shouldn’t be talking about implementation, we should be talking about how do we use the guiding principles to justify what each of us in our own communities, in our own institutions need to be doing.

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