Economic interests and human rights can be mutually reinforcing
Twenty years ago, the Voluntary Principles were launched to work with mining, gas and oil companies and find a way of preventing human rights violations. The initiative fosters dialogue between governments, companies and NGOs. Switzerland is a member and in its role as chair, which lasts for one year and ends in March 2020, it has worked to strengthen this multi-stakeholder approach in the field, in accordance with its own Foreign Policy Strategy 2020–23. The results have been positive.
Maintaining security at mining sites in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is a major challenge but one that, thanks to the Voluntary Principles, can be combined with respect for human rights. © FDFA
The idea behind the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights', launched in 2000, was to work towards a dialogue between the authorities, the private sector and civil society.
By adhering to the principles voluntarily, companies that often operate in complex or even fragile environments have a set of guidelines to identify the risks they are exposed to, for example when working with state law enforcement agencies or private security companies, which protect their activities. This enables them to take steps to prevent human rights abuses or to avoid exacerbating certain conflicts.
The Voluntary Principles are a valuable tool that supports countries to meet their obligations and ensure that human rights are respected. The NGOs contribute with their expertise on specific issues or on the challenges facing society, while being closely involved in developing constructive solutions.
Security in the Niger Delta
Platforms have already been created in Peru, Ghana, Nigeria and Myanmar. They include companies and representatives from governments and local NGOs. Similar contact groups will also be set up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Colombia and Indonesia.
A platform has been in place in Ghana since 2017 encouraging better coordination between the oil and gas companies and coastal communities in the Gulf of Guinea. In Nigeria, security forces running operations in the Niger Delta have been trained to operate within a framework which is respectful of human rights.
Promoting responsible behaviour
Switzerland supports this pragmatic approach, which helps to promote best practice and identify solutions in the field that address the local challenges. Switzerland joined the Voluntary Principles initiative in 2011. The principles are in line with the country's policy, which is broadly based on the belief that there is common ground to be found between economic interests and a respect for human rights.
At an institutional level, the Federal Council's National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights 2020–23 and its Foreign Policy Strategy 2020–23 provide a framework for responsible corporate behaviour in the area of human rights, both in Switzerland and abroad. These documents build on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
Switzerland's active role
Switzerland plays a major active role in several multi-stakeholder initiatives, such as the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers (ICoC) and the Voluntary Principles. On the initiative’s twentieth anniversary in 2020, Switzerland assumed the role of chair of the Voluntary Principles for the second time.
Accordingly, it has taken concrete steps, through the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) and the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO), to contact companies in the relevant sectors who have headquarters in Switzerland, as well as the authorities in countries where the raw materials are being extracted, to encourage these companies and governments to join the Voluntary Principles.
Switzerland also endeavours, through its bilateral and multilateral contacts, to foster dialogue between the private sector, the authorities and civil society on best practice in security and human rights.
Positive results and challenges
During its role as chair in 2019–20, Switzerland focused on implementing the Voluntary Principles initiative in the field and expanding it to new members.
The country succeeded in opening the initiative to a new sector with the addition of an agribusiness company. The first Chinese company also joined. In terms of governments, after Ghana’s membership, the DRC applied to join. This is a positive development as commitment from producer countries is key to strengthening the impact on the ground and involving national institutions.
Focusing its strategy on countries such as the DRC, Nigeria or China, which would benefit most from implementing the Voluntary Principles, Switzerland has invested in targeted projects, including police training and promoting a dialogue between civil society, companies and the authorities. It has also strengthened task forces, particularly in the DRC, to enhance the impact of the Voluntary Principles in French-speaking Africa.
It has worked with its partners to facilitate the signing of an agreement with the China Chamber of Commerce. The aim is to develop tools tailored to the Chinese context. Given the size of China’s global investments, Switzerland believes it is of paramount importance to involve this partner if it is to promote the universal implementation of its own conviction that economic interests and human rights are compatible and can in fact be mutually reinforcing.
Volontary Principles: chronology
The Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights were launched in 2000.
The initiative was developed through a dialogue between various governments (led by the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Norway); companies in the mining, oil and gas industries; and several NGOs working in the field of human rights.
The aim is to strike a better balance between a company’s security considerations and the respect for human rights. The Voluntary Principles can be applied to a range of industries.
Switzerland was accepted as a full member ('participant government') at an extraordinary plenary meeting in Ottawa in September 2011. It endorsed the principles and also made a set of commitments.
Switzerland is on the Initiative’s Steering Committee and it held the rotating chair of the Voluntary Principles between March 2013 and March 2014, and again between March 2019 and March 2020.
One of its aims is to ensure that as many governments as possible adhere to the Voluntary Principles and to promote dialogue between the authorities, the private sector and civil society.
Through its work, Switzerland has succeeded in building synergies between the Voluntary Principles, the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers (ICoC) and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
Members of the Voluntary Principles
Alphamin Bisie Mining SA
Barrick Gold Corporation
Newcrest Mining Limited
CDA Collaborative Learning Project
The Fund for Peace
Human Rights Watch
New Nigeria Foundation
Search for Common Ground
Mining and Energy Committee on Security and Human Rights in Colombia (CME)
Centre for Security Sector Governance (DCAF)
International Code of Conduct Association for Private Security Service Providers (ICoCA)
International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM)
International Finance Corporation (IFC)
Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB)
International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association (IPIECA)
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)