BSR Conference 2013

The Power of Networks

November 5-8 / San Francisco

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Thin Grey Line: State vs. Corporate Roles and Responsibilities in the Guiding Principles on Business

One-Hour Conversation Session / November 6, 2013


  • Anita Ramasastry, Professor of Law, University of Washington Law Foundation
  • Matthew Perault, Head, Policy Development, Facebook
  • Alex Newton, Advisor, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Australia
  • Faris Natour, Director, Human Rights, BSR (Moderator)


  • When working to protect human rights, governments must strike a balance between regulation and guidance to support business within the sphere of domestic laws that have extraterritorial applications and extraterritorial laws.

  • Companies like Facebook can have a significant impact in promoting human rights by connecting people, sharing information, and advancing human rights opportunities.

  • States can fulfill their duty to protect human rights and help advance corporate responsibility by enforcing international human rights laws, educating companies about them, filling gaps in the legal system, and participating in collaborative initiatives.

Memorable Quotes

“The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights state that there is an obligation of governments to enforce laws that require business to respect human rights, periodically assess the adequacy of such laws, and address any gaps.” —Anita Ramasastry, University of Washington Law Foundation

“The first rule of internet freedom is to not talk about internet freedom. That has been very true for instance in advocating against social media content restrictions in Vietnam. Doing it within human rights means you have zero impact. Doing it as a way to create a viable tech sector in Vietnam is a much more viable strategy.” —Matthew Perault, Facebook

“Mark Zuckerberg bet almost ten years ago that making the world more connected was a valuable goal in itself. Facebook wants a more connected world to promote human rights as well as access to education and health.” —Matthew Perault, Facebook

“Big tensions exist with companies that work in countries like China and Brazil and try to comply with local laws and home country expectations. There is no one easy answer [whether] to leave a country or stay, like the examples of Yahoo and Google in China have shown. It depends on a case-by-case basis, but the final decision can have negative consequences for real people.” —Alex Newton, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet of Australia


Natour began by asking the speakers what they believe the state’s role is in protecting human rights—and where the “thin grey line” falls between governments and companies in protecting and respecting human rights. Ramasastry said that the state’s duty to protect comes from classic human rights law. States have an obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights for citizens and members of their communities within their control and jurisdiction—including human rights violations by third parties such as corporations.

Natour then asked what the states actually do about protecting human rights. Newton stated that there is often a large discrepancy between what government actions should happen and what actually happens. The problem, Newton said, is that governments often lack vertical and horizontal policy coherence on their human rights obligations. Vertical policy coherence describes a state’s laws and processes to implement international human rights obligations, while horizontal policy coherence refers to informing business and other institutions to act in a way that is compatible with the state’s human rights obligations. Newton recommended that governments get together and share how they can best support local communities and corporations in protecting and respecting human rights. For example, Australia has launched its Mining for Development Initiative, which aims to help low-income countries use their natural resources to provide and maximize economic and social benefits to their people.

Natour asked Perault what Facebook would like to see governments do and what his company’s role is in respecting human rights. Perault said it is important that governments do not prohibit freedom of expression or engage in other restrictive activities. He believes that Facebook has a significant impact on governments because the social network has given people greater ability to express themselves, and officials therefore have to be more responsive to their constituencies. Facebook’s impact is to connect people, share information, and advance human rights opportunities.

Panelists discussed the recent action plan from the UK government and U.S. position papers on the UN Guiding Principles (UNGPs) on Business and Human Rights, and whether they will drive or undermine further human rights regulations. Ramasastry said that such action plans are useful and help understand what national governments are going to do to protect human rights. Nevertheless, more clarity on frameworks and tools on how to implement these action plans would be helpful. Despite these action plans, she thinks that regulations such as the U.S. Dodd–Frank Act on conflict minerals or Australia’s Illegal Logging Prohibition Act are still necessary to effectively advance human rights. Ramasastry expects civil society will play an increased role in the future to push governments for more regulation and push business for more action to protect human rights, especially with the issue of access to justice.

During the Q&A session, an audience member asked what companies can do in countries with a weak rule of law. Ramasastry explained that it can be a complex decision for companies entering a new market like Myanmar or deciding about staying in or leaving a complex market, such as a country that does not uphold human rights; she said companies must always comply with international law, especially when it goes beyond the local law. Newton said that companies should collaborate with the international community—whether the United Nations, other national governments, or companies—to fill the gaps in weak law enforcement. Extraterritorial legislation and multilateral diplomacy can help to advance rule of law locally in order to improve the benefits to both the company as well as the local community.

Audience member Sasha Anderson from Brandeis University asked whether mediators like honest brokers can help to uphold human rights in difficult circumstances and make all people meet their bottom line. The speakers agreed that multistakeholder initiatives, such as the Global Network Initiative, are a viable collaborative model to ensure human rights, such as freedom of expression. It is clear that more collaboration between businesses, between business and government, and between business and civil society is needed. In the latter situation, government might even play the role of the honest broker, because civil society is not yet open to collaboration with the private sector on upholding human rights.

Natour concluded the session by underlining the BSR 2013 Conference theme of “The Power of Networks,” saying that the UNGPs have enabled the three sectors (business, government, and civil society) to work together toward the common goal of protecting and respecting human rights worldwide.

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