The Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights (VPs) were developed to address the issue of oil, gas and mining companies’ association with human rights abuses in relation to the provision of security. This was – and continues to be – particularly true when these companies are operating in remote, less governed spaces or areas prone to conflict and human rights abuses. With the rise of “corporate social responsibility” (or simply, “CSR”) in the past decade since their creation, the VPs were easily picked up by CSR departments and have increasingly therefore been viewed by many as a CSR issue. This has led to the almost singular focus on the activities of the companies to reduce the likelihood of human rights abuses on or around their facilities. The fact is, however, that almost all incidences of human rights abuses or allegations of abuses actually involve public security forces, such as local police and military and not private security operators or employees of the companies themselves. The VPs, therefore, must be seen as much (if not more) as a security sector issue rather than a CSR one.

The companies do not have as much leverage on the governments in the countries where they operate as many people assume. This is actually why industry itself promoted the creation of the multi-sectoral group which subsequently became the VPs. They needed the support of their home governments to have the very difficult discussions about another government improving the human rights record of its security forces by concentrating on the elements of a stable security sector, such as increasing training, providing adequate equipment and pay, or ensuring strong oversight and proper vetting. Despite these facts, the VPs has not adequately engaged and coordinated with the multitude of agencies that actually work on the full range of security sector reform issues in high-risk and conflict-affected countries. The range of these issues is vast, from ensuring the proper vetting and training of police to the creation of prisons and correctional facilities and the establishment of transparent and accountable courts systems. The VPs can provide a tool that these agencies might find valuable in their own work encouraging governments to address national shortcomings within the security sector as well as provide unique access and training opportunities to public security forces. In turn, the various agencies and their implementing partners could bring tools and networks that could help increase the ability of public security forces to address security risks when necessary in a transparent manner that does not lead to human rights abuses or allegations of such abuses.

The human rights issues that surround the extractive industry in relation to national public security forces are extremely challenging – including sexual assault by public security forces, excessive and sometimes deadly use of force, mistreatment of detainees, arbitrary arrest, among others. Since the companies have little leverage to force improvements and make reforms to the security sector, they can only encourage improved standards, support initiatives designed to improve the sector, provide appropriate assistance, and document their attempts to encourage such reform. This in turn leaves them exposed as they may be asked for support for items needed to make improvements, such as delivering training or providing less-than-lethal equipment.

Consider the case of Colombia. When the Vice President of the country pledged his government’s support of the VPs, military and police institutions were quickly involved in the conversation. Given the U.S. and other governments were already supporting security sector reform programs, it was almost unnecessary to use the VPs to encourage that reform, but instead the VPs were utilized as a space for dialogue on issues directly impacting the extractive industry and for discussions on how the VPs could ultimately support SSR. There is no denying that Colombia has been a great success in terms of the improvements to its ability to responsibly provide security to its citizens against immense challenges.

Without the involvement of agencies that work on enhancing the overall performance of national security forces, the actual reforms on the ground that the VPs could be contributing to are limited. Including the right agencies in discussions about the VPs would give us all the opportunity to see how the VPs could be used as an opening for national-scale security sector improvements, which could have a much larger impact on protecting people living near extractive facilities and elsewhere in at-risk countries.