In 2014-15 the UK has been the chair of the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights Initiative. The Voluntary Principles provide guidance on responsible business practices to oil, gas and mining companies. This includes advice on how to conduct effective risk assessments and engage with public and private security providers in order to mitigate the risk that security around their operations might contribute to human rights abuses or violent conflict. The UK will be concluding its chairmanship with an Annual Plenary Meeting in London on 17–18 March.
As the fastest growing economy in Southeast Asia, this is a country of huge potential but which also faces significant challenges. With unemployment at around 35 percent and a quarter of the population living below the poverty line responsible investment by international business has a major role to play in alleviating poverty; improving livelihoods and helping transform this country’s economy.
The UK government and private sector are committed to supporting the reform process. We believe that a transparent and rules-based economy is essential for growth and poverty reduction. This is why, during the UK’s G8 presidency in 2013, we supported calls from President Thein Sein’s government to ensure there was a commitment to responsible business here.
As one of the main donor countries, we have been matching our words with deeds. We are working with government, parliament, business, civil society and international organisations to help build an economy which generates strong, sustainable, balanced growth that builds prosperity and reduces poverty.
The UK is working to support efforts to ensure that the population as a whole benefits from its abundant natural resources. The UK supported the country’s EITI application, and we will continue to assist with the implementation, as well as the related capacity building and frameworks. The UK set up the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business which is working with business, civil society and the government to provide practical information and advice on improving business standards, including in the oil and gas sector.
We are working with local and regional networks on workshops to showcase the benefits of multi-stakeholder engagement, conflict sensitive economic governance, tackling corruption and the adoption of international standards on transparency. We are also involved in work to protect and manage the country’s vast forest reserves.
UK businesses, including oil and gas companies who are now entering the country, place great importance on obtaining and retaining their social licence to operate. They are keen to engage with local communities to ensure that they can make a telling, positive contribution through their presence. Oil, gas and mining companies often operate in sensitive environments and have to deal with particular challenges and risks.
For the last fifteen years the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights have provided the best guidance on managing these risks in the extractive sector.
The Voluntary Principles do three things. They help companies to carry out risk assessments. They advise companies on working with local police and military forces, as governments are ultimately responsible for protection human rights. And they provide advice on managing private security companies, where private security is used.
The overall aim of the Voluntary Principles is to ensure human rights are respected and that companies build good relations with local communities.
The Voluntary Principles are good for business. They can help to reduce the risk of violence and conflict around otherwise valuable commercial activity. They help encourage investment by reducing the operational, legal, and reputational risks that companies face in connection with security, where their work affects the daily lives of local people.
By reducing the human rights risks and potential for conflict around extractive sites, the Voluntary Principles help governments to meet their commitments under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
For the last year the UK has chaired the Voluntary Principles Initiative, which promotes the principles. It is also a forum to discuss challenges and best practice. It includes companies, governments and non-governmental organisations.
One of our key aims has been to encourage more governments to sign up to the Voluntary Principles, particularly in the global South where some of these challenges are most acute. We hope that the country’s authorities will do so and that companies operating here take up the Voluntary Principles, to avoid future conflict scenarios such as the situation we have seen in Letpadaung.
Fifteen years after they were first developed, the Voluntary Principles continue to play an important role in helping companies to manage risks in the extractive sector. We will continue our efforts to grow and strengthen the initiative, to ensure that the Voluntary Principles remain the extractive industry standard for managing security and human rights challenges.
Tony Preston joined the British Embassy in February 2013 as Head of the Prosperity Team, which works to encourage and support Myanmar in removing barriers to becoming a functioning, prosperous, sustainable economy benefitting all people and regions, with a positive climate for domestic and international trade and investment. He joined the UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office in 2002 and his previous diplomatic postings were in Japan and Indonesia.
Further information on the Voluntary Principles can be found here: www.voluntaryprinciples.org.