Can Voluntary Frameworks Ensure Companies Respect Human Rights?

Three years after the release of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, many companies have made significant strides in their commitment to respect human rights, while others have yet to publically embrace the UN’s guidance. As a result, some stakeholders have called for stricter, binding requirements that would require companies to conduct human rights due diligence. And yet, other stakeholders point to the tremendous impact the Guiding Principles have had to date. They argue that the solution isn’t binding requirements, but rather greater focus and effort on using them as a tool to raise the bar on human rights for all companies. This one-hour debate-style session will delve into the question of whether the Guiding Principles are meeting their objectives or whether binding requirements would spur progress.


  • Ursula Wynhoven, General Counsel and Chief, Governance and Social Sustainability, United Nations Global Compact
  • Chris Albin-Lackey, Senior Researcher, Business and Human Rights Program, Human Rights Watch
  • Jonathan Drimmer, Vice President and Assistant General Counsel, Barrick Gold Corporation
  • Melike Ann Yetken, Senior Advisor for Corporate Responsibility, U.S. Department of State
  • Chloё Poynton, Manager, Advisory Services, BSR (Moderator)


  • There is a debate as to whether voluntary frameworks are sufficient to ensure that companies respect human rights, with some stakeholders pushing for more binding principles on human rights.

  • Businesses, civil society, and government need to collaborate to create frameworks that promote responsible business and respect for human rights.

  • Businesses will benefit from being part of the conversation about what should be included in any new frameworks, voluntary or otherwise.

Memorable Quotes

“Many companies have made great strides in their commitment to respect human rights.” —Chloё Poynton, BSR

“We are not a guard dog, we are not looking to bite anyone, we are more of a guide dog.” —Ursula Wynhoven, United Nations Global Compact

“There is not a model out there that is ready to be implemented.” —Chris Albin-Lackey, Human Rights Watch

“There is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to human rights.” —Melike Ann Yetken, U.S. Department of State


Chloë Poynton opened the session by explaining that while some companies have made great strides in respecting human rights, others have made only limited changes, and for these reasons, some stakeholders have pushed for more stringently binding principles on human rights. Among these was Ecuador, which put forward a resolution to the UN Human Rights Council to create an international, legally binding instrument on human rights for business. Poynton also noted that other stakeholders believe the voluntary mechanisms are sufficient.

Ursula Wynhoven followed by stating that we need both as they complement each other. She pointed out that some of the benefits of voluntary frameworks are that they help build consensus among businesses and provide more guidance on how to actually implement the standards.

Chris Albin-Lackey continued by saying that voluntary frameworks are not enough for two reasons: If a company does not want to participate, it isn’t required to, and that companies are not up to the task of figuring out how to comply with human rights on their own.

Melike Ann Yetken agreed that there are opportunities for both voluntary and binding frameworks and that it is too soon to know if the UN Guiding Principles (UNGP) and other voluntary mechanisms have worked, because they are still untested. She went on to state that in September the president announced a national action plan on responsible business conduct that aims to help create an environment to help U.S. companies respect human rights and clarify what is expected from these companies.

Poynton then asked the panelists about the impact of the U.S. government reporting requirements for U.S. companies doing business in Myanmar. Yetken responded by explaining how the results have been quite positive and have led to critical conversations that can help address systemic problems in the country.

Poynton continued by asking about what impact the Ecuador resolution to the U.N. may have on human rights frameworks. Albin-Lackey argued that it has caused some distraction, emphasizing that it is important to understand that the resolution came about because of the existing frameworks’ inadequate nature and the failure of government. If government does not figure out its role and if business does not participate, then more extreme reactions will continue. Yetken followed by saying that businesses need to share their stories about what has worked well and what hasn’t with each other and with governments.

Poynton then asked what leading companies could do to get all businesses engaged in human rights. Wynhoven recommended that businesses participate in the annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights and provide support to other companies that are just beginning on their human rights journey.

During the Q&A session, audience member Andy York from the N Brown Group asked the panelists about the capacity of governments to enforce legislation and how small and medium enterprises can get involved in human rights. Albin-Lackey noted that not all businesses have the resources to independently implement human rights frameworks; with legislation in place they would be told what a business of their size should be doing and this would help level the playing field. Yetken added that the U.S. government promotes the participation of other governments in initiatives to help with their capacity. Wynhoven recognized that lack of government capacity, especially rule of law, is a challenge for business.

Annette Stube from Maersk Group asked panelists to comment on how the UNGP is being misused to put undue pressure on companies. Albin-Lackey noted that a positive side of a stronger role for government would be limits on the role of government, but noted that with or without the UNGP, businesses will be under pressure to influence human rights.

Rasmus N. D. Skov from DONG Energy asked how civil society and business could better align and how emerging market economies could join the human rights conversation. The panelists agreed that much remains to be done so that businesses and civil society work together. Albin-Lackey added that it is a challenge to create domestic pressure on emerging market companies to live up to international human rights standards. Yetken continued by saying that the U.S. government uses its leverage to push for this with other governments.

Laura Rubbo of The Walt Disney Company asked how companies can help regulators and those influencing regulation to understand how businesses actually work. Yetken responded by stating that this is one of the goals of the National Action Plan introduced by the president.

Poynton closed the session by encouraging everyone to stay engaged and keep talking about these issues.


November 5, 2014