In 2000, governments (initially the UK and US), NGOs, and companies established the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights (“the Voluntary Principles” or VPs). 1 The objective is to provide guidance for businesses in the extractive industry (mainly oil, gas and mining) on maintaining security and respect for human rights throughout their operations. The principles were born as a direct response to abuses perpetrated by private guard companies and security services in countries such as Colombia, Peru, Nigeria, Indonesia, Ghana and Democratic Republic of Congo.

What is the scope and content of the Principles?

The principles have been put in place to guide companies in upholding human rights and fundamental freedoms throughout their operations and to ensure the safety and security of all those involved.

Participants commit to conducting risk assessments and taking steps to ensure actions taken by governments, particularly the actions of public security providers are consistent with human rights. Where host governments are unable or unwilling to provide adequate security to protecting a company’s personnel or assets, private security should observe the policies of the contracting company regarding ethical conduct and human rights, the law and professional standards of the country in which they operate, emerging best practices and international humanitarian law.

  • Risk Assessment:
    • Identification of Security Risks
    • Potential for Violence
    • Human Rights Records
    • Rule of Law
    • Conflict Analysis
    • Equipment Transfers
  • Companies & Public Security:
    • Security Arrangements
    • Deployment and Conduct
    • Consultation and Advice
    • Responses to Human Rights Abuses
  • Companies & Private Security:
    • Law Enforcement
    • Coordination with State Forces
    • Weapons Carriage
    • Defensive Local Use of force

Who participates in this initiative? 2

  • As of April 2021:
  • Governments: Argentina, Australia, Canada, Colombia, Ghana, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, The UK, and the US;
  • Non-Governmental Organisations: CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, COMPPART, The Fund for Peace, Human Rights Watch, IMPACT, International Alert, LITe-Africa, New Nigeria Foundation, Pact, Pax, Search for Common Ground, UNICEF Canada 3 and two engaged organizations (West Africa Network for Peacebuilding, Ghana and Green Advocates)
  • Observers: CME – Seguridad y Derechos Humanos; DCAF – Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance; ICMM – International Council on Mining & Metals; ICoCA- International Code of Conduct Association; ICRC – International Committee of the Red Cross; IFC – International Finance Corporation; IHRB – Institute for Human Rights and Business; IPIECA; OECD – Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
  • Companies: Agnico Eagle, Alphamin Bisie Mining SA, Anglo American, AngloGold Ashanti, Barrick Gold Corporation, BHP Billiton, BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Dinant (Engaged), Eni (Engaged), Equinor, ExxonMobil, Freeport-McMoRan Inc., Frontera Energy, Galp Energia, Gemfields (Engaged), Glencore, MMG (Engaged), Newcrest Mining Limited, Newmont, Norsk Hydro, Oil Search, PanAust, Repsol, Rio Tinto, Shell Sherritt International, Total, Tullow Oil, Vale Woodside Energy and Yara (Engaged).

In 2007, the Voluntary Principles adopted formal Participation criteria intended to strengthen the principles by fostering greater accountability on part of all the VPs participants.

All participating governments, companies and NGOs, must meet the following criteria: 4

  • Publicly promote the Voluntary Principles;
  • Proactively implement or assist in the implementation of the Voluntary Principles;
  • Attend plenary meetings and, as appropriate and commensurate with resource constraints, other sanctioned extraordinary and in-country meetings;
  • Communicate publicly on efforts to implement or assist in the implementation of the Voluntary Principles at least annually;
  • Prepare and submit to the Steering Committee, within the period between January 1 and February 28, an annual report on efforts to implement or assist in the implementation of the Voluntary Principles according to criteria agreed upon by the participants;
  • Participate in dialogue with other Voluntary Principles Participants; and
  • Subject to legal, confidentiality, safety, and operational concerns, provide timely responses to reasonable requests for information from other Participants with the aim of facilitating comprehensive understanding of the issues related to implementation or assistance in implementation of the Voluntary Principles.

Any Participant’s status may be reviewed and such Participant may be declared inactive if it fails to submit an Annual Report that meets criteria specified in the Reporting Guidelines 5 However, it is noteworthy that there is no system for evaluating how closely the Principles are followed by individual companies or governments, as only general reports are published.

Who can raise concerns about participants?

Only participants can raise concerns regarding whether any other Participant has met the Participation Criteria and, where appropriate, concerns regarding sustained lack of efforts to implement the Voluntary Principles.

Process and Outcome

Participants will seek to resolve any concerns through direct dialogue with another Participant. If direct dialogue fails to resolve the issue, a Participant may submit its concerns to the Steering Committee. A written statement of the concerns should be submitted to the Steering Committee through the Secretariat.

  • The Steering Committee is to immediately notify the Participant(s) about whom concerns have been raised in the written submission that a grievance has been formally submitted. The Participant(s) are to be given the option of providing a written response within thirty (30) days. This response should be submitted to the Steering Committee or the Secretariat.
  • If determined by consensus of the Steering Committee that these concerns are based on reliable information, and that the Voluntary Principles process will be strengthened by further consultations, the matter will be referred to the Secretariat within 60 days of its submission to the Steering Committee.
  • Upon referral by the Steering Committee, the Secretariat will facilitate formal consultations between the interested Participants, subject to the requirement of confidentiality set forth in this document.The Secretariat is to work with the Participants to develop a written consultation plan, which is is to be provided to the Steering Committee and the Secretariat is to provide regular updates to the Steering Committee on the consultation process.
  • If the Participants are able to reach a resolution, a document regarding that resolution is to be drafted and presented to the Steering Committee in a timely manner.
  • In no more than six months, the Participants involved in these consultations may present the matter to the annual or special Plenary for its consideration.
  • That Plenary shall decide what, if any, further action is appropriate, such as: - recommendations - expulsion
  • A party to a complaint can request that the Steering Committee conduct a status review of implementation and consider any issues arising from the implementation of a recommendation.
  • Categorical failure to implement the Plenary’s recommendations within a reasonable period as defined by that Plenary will result in inactive status.
  • Decisions to expel a Participant must be taken by consensus, excluding the Participant who is raising the concerns and the Participant about whom the concerns are raised. In the event concerns are raised about more than one Participant, the decisions with respect to each Participant will be reached separately.
  • If the Plenary decides to expel a Participant, the Participant may reapply for membership in the Voluntary Principles Initiative after twelve (12) months, pursuant to the process through which new Participants are admitted.

Although there is little information available on the use of the mechanism, it has been used several times in the past. For instance, a mediation process was conducted under the auspices of the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights after a complaint made by Oxfam America. See Marco Arena, Mirtha Vasquez and others v. Peru in Section I, Part III, Chapter III.

Considering that NGOs participate in the process, victims could approach these NGOs where there are concerns of “sustained lack of effort” on the part of a participating company. This is an additional tool to raise awareness on a situation of human rights abuse.

Overall, the Voluntary Principles remain criticised for their voluntary nature, lack of enforcement mechanism, and the lack of transparency of the process. 6 Yet, they remind states of their legal obligations and, although they may be voluntary for companies, their employees are expected to respect the principles once a company has adopted them into its internal guidelines. 7 While their language is easily understandable, it remains unclear what is expected from companies and states to put them into practice. There remain important challenges to ensure that the VPs can contribute to improving situations for victims in particularly complex settings.