Keynote Address: UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs 
George Washington University
Washington, DC
December 8, 2011

Thank you Stephan, for that kind introduction. I am pleased to see so many friends in the audience. I’d especially like to recognize representatives from the Global Compact, George Washington University and the U.S. Institute of Peace for hosting today’s event.

It is appropriate that we gather today to discuss the UN guiding principles on business and human rights against the backdrop of International Human Rights Day. Around the world, people are celebrating the importance of human rights and the simple yet powerful idea that – as Secretary Clinton said earlier this week – “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Because we are human, we therefore have rights. And because we have rights, governments are bound to protect them.” While it is true that governments are at the core of protecting human rights, we are not the only actors with responsibilities.

Around the world, companies are growing in influence, power and size. The work of multinational corporations transcends national boundaries. Many companies operate in challenging environments with little to no government oversight or accountability. In fact, today, just under half of the world’s 100 largest economic actors are private companies. The other half are nations. If Wal-Mart were a country, its annual revenues would rank it as the 26th largest economy in the world — ahead of Norway, Venezuela and Malaysia. Clearly, the corporate sector has an important role to play in upholding human rights.

Governments alone cannot answer all of the challenges that companies face or regulate all activity to prevent human rights abuses. We also cannot assume that companies, acting alone, will act in the best interests of those who serve it or work to protect the communities in which it operates. Even serious, well-intentioned companies can lack the tools, guidance, or basic conceptual framework to effectively address these problems on their own. The rules of the road for companies operating in a global marketplace have not yet been written. In fact, governments, companies, and civil society are all working, often in partnership, to figure out how best to understand and manage human rights risks in ever evolving complex business environments.

Thanks to the longtime contributions of the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative on Human Rights, Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises, John Ruggie, we now have constructive guidance on the path forward. His framework, endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in June, has broken new ground in highlighting the responsibility of nation states for the activities of international businesses. Because multi-national corporate activity is increasingly divorced from the legal and regulatory framework of the nation-state we need to focus on the intersection of business activities and human rights.

Government, civil society and the private sector each have has an important role to play, and the lesson we see again and again is that we are most effective when we work together. Secretary Clinton has compared it to three legs of a stool – each leg contributes to keeping the stool standing. This is a moment in time when smart, thoughtful and creative action by governments, civil society, and companies is urgently needed.

I’d like to talk about three specific areas in which the U.S. government is working in partnership with the corporate sector and other stakeholders to advance human rights.

Open Government Partnership

I just returned yesterday from Brazil where 51 nations gathered to discuss the Open Government Partnership. OGP, as it’s more commonly called, is a unique international organization because it is headed by NGOs and governments. Together with private businesses, this partnership aims to provide people and governments with the tools to increase transparency and accountability and to make their governments more accessible for participation.

Thanks to the assistance of private companies and others involved with the OGP Networking Mechanism, governments can take advantage of the most innovative, cutting edge technologies as they design their National Action Plans. For example, Indonesia is using OGP and related technologies to keep track of illegal logging of its valuable timber resources. Estonia uses the latest in IT to allow its parliament to legislate and take public comment in a manner completely open to its citizens.

The U.S. OGP commitment includes implementing the Extractives Industry Transparency Initiative. EITI works with companies and civil society to shed more light on revenues from businesses working with natural resources. None of this would be possible without cooperation from private businesses.

Conflict Minerals

Another area in which we are working with the private sector to protect and better secure human rights is in combating conflict minerals. Minerals like gold, tin, tungsten and tantalum, are mined from the vast natural resources of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and hundreds of thousands of Congolese depend on their trade to earn a living. But tragically, violent armed groups exploit and hijack this trade, using forced labor to profit from it and sometimes killing to control it. So production and trade that could be drivers of economic development instead fuel violence and instability and harm innocent Congolese.

The Public-Private Alliance for Responsible Mineral Trade, which I helped launch last month, seeks to break the links between conflict and these resources. This new alliance brings together the U.S. Government, almost twenty internationally-listed high-tech and automotive companies, four industry associations and six non-governmental organizations, as well as the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region, to respond practically to the challenges posed by conflict minerals.

Through a range of tools developed by a multi-stakeholder governance group, the PPA will take important steps toward securing legitimate, conflict-free minerals from the DRC. We will do so by supporting pilot programs — with the ultimate goal of producing scalable, self-sustaining systems — to demonstrate a fully traced and validated supply chain in a way that is credible to companies, civil society, and government. The PPA will also be a hub for those seeking information and ways to take action on responsible minerals trade. The PPA will provide a platform for stakeholders throughout the supply chain to harmonize their efforts and contribute to in-region solutions which mitigate risk for companies and respect human rights

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT)

I’d like to highlight one final area in which we are working with the private sector to protect human rights. As the Secretary reiterated this week in her speech to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, “human rights are gay rights and gay rights are human rights.” At the September UNGA session, President Obama made history as the first president to call for such rights explicitly in an international setting: “No country should deny people their rights because of who they love, which is why we must stand up for the rights of gays and lesbians everywhere.”

We need to incorporate consideration the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community into our discussion of business and human rights. We at the State Department are working with groups like the Council on Global Equality, a network of organizations concerned with LGBT rights, to improve the policies of U.S. businesses overseas. In some countries, we have seen horrific discrimination against, and even the killing of, LGBT people. We are working with U.S. businesses in locations where LGBT people are under threat to ensure that our personnel policies reflect American values, rather than discriminatory policies of host governments. It was not that long ago that the actions of American shareholders and business leaders played a role in pressuring the apartheid regime in South Africa to change that discriminatory system. Similarly, with LGBT rights, we hope to identify some key principles that shareholders and the public can use to evaluate the fairness of American businesses. We want to ensure that LGBT people working at, or who are customers of, such businesses are being treated fairly and without discrimination.


Our approach to supporting respect for human rights through our foreign policy, including our development policy, must reflect the world as it is today, not as it used to be. We must draw on the resources of all sectors and stakeholders to ensure that the 21st century world is one in which business, technology, and innovation work on behalf of the majority, with human rights secured at every step of the process.