Remarks at the Trygve Lie Symposium on Business and Human Rights

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs 
International Peace Institute
New York City
September 24, 2010

Thank you very much.

It is a personal pleasure to be part of this distinguished panel and to be in room of members of government, NGOs, business representative, and to have it be a standing room only event. I want to, of course, thank the organizers of this symposium, particularly thank the International Peace Institute and thank Foreign Minister Støre for certainly the work that the Norwegian government has done in this area in bringing together annual symposia on this topic. And I do also want to thank Professor Ruggie for his groundbreaking contribution in developing the “Protect, Respect and Remedy” framework. We have followed your work closely ever since your mandate began, Professor Ruggie, and we are committed to working with you and with the other stakeholders as you continue to refine this framework and have it provide a very important, and, as you put it, coherent effort to align things.

I'm sure that all of you by now have seen the emphasis that President Obama placed on human rights in open societies in his address yesterday before the General Assembly. He's called to promote new tools of communication, to support free and open internet, and to call out those who suppress ideas has important implications for our discussion today. The President admonished that we should be careful not to allow the economic downturn to divert us from our pursuit of human rights and prosperity, and this is something also that the Foreign Minister mentioned today. He emphasized that it's a mistake to put aside human rights for the promise of short-term stability, and that it is a false notion that economic growth can be done at the expense of freedom. Clearly, we must pursue both of these objectives together, and governments should work together with business to achieve these goals.

It is now more important than ever to cultivate business environments that are socially conscious, that are responsive, and that are responsible to human rights concerns. Multinational corporations today represent more than half of the world's 100 largest economic actors. Businesses wield significant influence in areas where they operate. In many of these environments, the rule of law is weak, respect for individual rights is lacking, and civil conflict may be prevalent. Wherever business operate, but particularly in these environments, it is important the companies work to respect human rights. In instances where they are not, we -- governments, business and civil society -- should work collaboratively to be able to address this situation.

The "Protect, Respect, Remedy" framework, which Professor Ruggie so eloquently described for us as we began this session, has assigned each of us a distinct responsibility. States need to protect their citizens, companies need to assume the responsibility of respect of human rights, and remedies need to be easily accessible when violations occur. We concur with Professor Ruggie that states have the primary responsibility to protect their citizens from harm and to mitigate human rights abuses. And this is something that other members of the panel have also mentioned.

Of course, the framework highlights the important role that businesses play in addressing human rights. I want to share with you some examples of how the Obama Administration is undertaking several efforts to actively engage on human rights issues and business. We regularly meet with businesses to discuss how they can advance human rights, and to encourage transparency and accountability, model behavior, and compliance with the rule of law.

We also encourage businesses to monitor and redress human rights abuses throughout their supply chains. This effort to collaborate with business also creates improved capacity to be able to work together. Secretary Clinton has made conflict minerals a priority issue. In Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, as many of you know, the illicit trade of minerals continues to finance conflict to fuel human right abuses in mines and in mining communities. We are working with other governments and with the private sector on how to address these issues.

We have found that this type of work that is multi-stakeholder engagement can be of great value in tackling some of the difficult human rights issues that we face. For example, our current role as chairs of the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights is an effort involving instructive industries in challenging environments, and we are working with the corporate organizations, with NGOs, and with governments to increase the accountability and to have on the ground effectiveness of these principles. Many human rights issues involve private companies, and center around the role of security forces, both public and privately contracted, and effectively implement principles that can be of great value in reducing abuses and redressing the wrongs that exist. We're very pleased that Professor Ruggie gives strong support to this initiative.

Similarly, we are very supportive of the Global Network Initiative, which is an effort on the part of companies, of investors, and of civil society stakeholders to advance freedom of expression and privacy on information and communication technologies. Now is the time for companies to demonstrate their commitment to implementation and accountability under this initiative. We hope to see increased participation of all stakeholders in the Global Network Initiative, and we have particularly encouraged more companies to join this effort and to move it forward. Clearly, the multi-stakeholder approach provides us with a very good value at collaborating together.

As Professor Ruggie mentioned, there is no silver bullet in addressing these very complex business and human rights challenges which we face, as different players come in with different objectives and different priorities. So it's our responsibility to work together and to engage in a meaningful way with a “Protect, Respect and Remedy” framework.

I am sure that this conversation that we are having today is really just the beginning. I look forward to reading the final report that Professor Ruggie will be preparing, and to continuing these discussions actively. Thanky you.