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Article

On the 20th anniversary, Bennett Freeman presents his reflections on the path of the Voluntary Principles

"The Voluntary Principles at 20: A Founder’s Reflections" - January 2021

...The Voluntary Principles have attracted justified criticism over the years.  The plenary process was beset by crisis, even paralysis, between 2007-09 over participation criteria. It then suffered a blow to its credibility in 2013 when two especially visible NGO participants departed over transparency and accountability concerns.  But the Initiative has survived, even thrived, now counting 10 governments, 32 companies, and 14 NGOs among its official members plus nine observers—as well as many other governments, companies and NGOs unofficially involved at the country level.  Plus its initial focus on three countries—Nigeria, Indonesia, and Colombia—has long since widened to encompass varying degrees of implementation in at least two or even closer to three dozen countries around the world...The VPs represented an imperfect and incomplete solution—voluntary not mandatory principles drafted and negotiated in less than one year and launched without an agreed governance and accountability framework to take forward what began as an experimental multi-stakeholder dialogue...(...) the Voluntary Principles succeeded in laying the foundation for human rights impact assessments (HRIAs) in particular and human rights due diligence (HRDD) in general, with mandatory HRDD now emerging as one of the most dynamic agendas in the entire business and human right world...But it is difficult to gauge the extent to which implementation has contributed to respect for other rights connected with security forces and conflict zones: Indigenous peoples rights; freedom of expression, assembly, and association; women’s rights (especially protection from sexual violence that has occurred horrifically and tragically in proximity to extractives); and the rights of other vulnerable groups.  The most obvious category of people who are directly at risk from security forces are human rights defenders—including land and environmental defenders— who have had a history of conflict with extractives companies and especially in recent years with relatively small mining companies...