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Geneva Forum Marks Real Turning Point in Discussion of Business and Human Rights
Media Stakeout
December 4, 2012

Michael Posner
Assistant Secretary of State for
Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

A man speaking at a microphone
Assistant Secretary Michael Posner Speaks with the Press about Business and Human Rights

December 4, 2012

Assistant Secretary Posner:  Thank you all for being here.

This morning the High Commissioner for Human Rights and John Ruggie opened the first human rights and business summit of the UN.  This follows on the work of John Ruggie over the last half dozen years, and now a working group on Business and Human Rights.  There were 700 or 800 people there.  It really is a turning point I think in this discussion.

It’s 64 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted this week, and when the framers, Eleanor Roosevelt and others, created the Universal Declaration it was very much a world where everybody was focused on states.  Sixty-four years later the world looks very different.  One of the differences is the enormous growth of private companies, multinational companies and others, and the need to create rules of the road for how governments, companies and civil society interact with respect to issues of human rights.  What John Ruggie has done as the Special Representative of the Secretary General was to create a broad framework or common platform for the discussion that talked about a government’s duty to protect human rights, a company’s responsibility to respect, and the need for victims to have a remedy.  That’s really the starting point for a discussion.  It provides a framework and a justification for action.

What we’re doing here today is to really put meat on the bones and for companies, for governments, for civil society to think about the next steps.  How do we make this real?  How do we affect real people’s lives?  These are issues of the day.  They’re issues that are going to be enormously important in the 21st Century.  It was very encouraging to see such an outpouring of interest both among governments but also many, many companies here as well as members of civil society.  So now we move on.

I’m happy to take your questions.

Media:  What are the most real propositions that you’ve seen so far here?

Assistant Secretary Posner:  I think you sort of have to take this from different perspectives.  One of the things we’re focused on is what should the U.S. government be doing.  Obviously we primarily first have a responsibility and duty to protect our own people, our own citizens and residents for example in the work place.  We have to have laws and regulations and oversight mechanisms.  But we also need to be thinking more broadly about our role in the world.  What do we do when other governments fail to protect their people, their workers, and institute the kinds of oversight mechanisms?  Then what do we do with respect to our own companies?

So Congress has enacted the Dodd-Frank Bill which now requires reporting by U.S. companies doing business in the DRC.  We have now regulations, a reporting requirement for companies doing business in Burma over a certain dollar amount.  So we’re starting to look at what are our obligations there as well.

Then more broadly, I think for companies, the question is how do they internalize this?  How do they create both internal mechanisms and internal principles, ways of evaluating their own performance?  And then most ambitiously, how do they come together in industries, as we’ve seen the extractive industries do with the voluntary principles on security and human rights; as we’ve seen the manufacturing industry do through the Fair Labor Association; and as we’ve seen information technology do through the Global Network Initiative. 

So we’re seeing both on the company side and the government side the beginnings, but we’re really at the very beginning of a long road to make these principles real.

Media:  I was wondering on multinational corporations what kind of impact do countries even as big as the U.S. have in pushing them to respect human rights?

Assistant Secretary Posner:  I think one of the things we can and are often doing is to convene.  Our two Undersecretaries for Business and for Global Affairs have convened actually a couple of sessions with the information technology/communications companies to talk about their collective responsibilities.  We’ve worked with the oil and mining sectors to encourage active participation in the voluntary principles on security and human rights.

We talk to companies all the time who are involved in global sourcing.  We’re very mindful of the fact that American companies that are operating globally have responsibilities and we as a government need to encourage and push them to do the right thing 

Media:  Do you think that U.S. companies operating overseas should be in some way a sort of force of, a battering ram or soft power to spread U.S. ideas about the role of women and the rights of gays and lesbians and transgender people?

Assistant Secretary Posner:  I think part of this discussion is looking at the universal principles that the UN has developed through the Universal Declaration, including on the rights of women, including in recent years the efforts of the Human Rights Council and others to address LGBT issues.

Obviously we want to encourage American companies to be partners to us in trying to promote those universal values.  So we are constantly meeting, as I say, with companies, encouraging them to think in affirmative ways, how can they advance some of the things they’re doing within the United States throughout their global operations.

Media:  Are indigenous peoples also an issue?  What do you think the companies have to do when they are, for instance, extractive companies, what do you have to do when they work on the land of indigenous peoples?


Assistant Secretary Posner:  There are many many issues, especially for some of the extractive industries, mining, et cetera, but for other industries as well, dealing with land rights, dealing with the rights of indigenous people.  So much of what’s being discussed and debated has to do with what happens when a government confiscates land in the name of promoting economic development; what the rules are.  Again, we’re very much rooted in trying to establish rule of law, legal procedures, due process so that people who are vulnerable, either because of their economic status or for other reasons, are not exploited and their rights are protected.  That’s very much part of the discussion that goes on and it happens across the globe.

Media:  If you don’t mind, it’s on a slightly different topic. But I understand recently you met the families of Tibetan self-immolators and I wanted to ask what you learned and what you think China should be doing, what are China’s responsibilities in respect to this?

Assistant Secretary Posner:  We met last week with three family members of people who had self-immolated in the last couple of years.  It’s a tragic situation.  I think there are now more than 80 people who have self-immolated in and around Tibet.  As Victoria Nuland said last week, we are urging the government of China to respect the cultural and linguistic and other basic rights of the Tibetan people, and we’re also urging that there be a direct discussion between the government and representatives of the Dali Lama.

So we very much hope that the desperation that led to these acts can be alleviated by more attention to the basic rights of the Tibetan people.