Corporations today have a global scale and impact that matches or sometimes dwarfs that of governments. Their activities - from sourcing of raw materials to processing and production of intermediate or finished goods, to distribution and sale - have major consequences not just for the human rights of their employees but also for those of individuals and communities where they operate.
In many of these countries, government oversight and regulation is absent or largely ineffective. Companies struggle to define their responsibilities in the wake of these governance gaps, in particular where local law requires less of them than does international law, e.g., on wages, hours or basic safety.
A robust and often contentious debate over these questions culminated in the development of the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (“UNGPs” or “Guiding Principles”). The UNGPs, finalized in 2011, establish a framework for considering the respective roles of governments and corporations and outline core concepts of human rights due diligence and effective remedy. In doing so, the UNGPs also now inform and to some extent have refocused ongoing voluntary efforts that have emerged over the past 20 years to fill these governance gaps among stakeholders from business, civil society, the investment community, and academia.
These developments have taken place against the backdrop of an explosion in global trade and dramatic changes in the rules governing the international trading and investment framework. The establishment of the World Trade Organization and the proliferation of bilateral and regional trade agreements led to increased scrutiny of the relationship between trade and human rights and, ultimately, some acknowledgement and integration of labor standards at the regional/bilateral level.
This course introduces students to the business and human rights discussion and debate, covering core international human rights/worker rights issues, labor and trade concepts, and emerging voluntary and international norms, as well as reviewing the key stakeholders, guidance, and tools, and examining how these play out in the context of sector-specific initiatives.
Among the key questions the course explores are:
What are the relevant human rights standards that affect business?
What are the appropriate linkages – including the legal relationships – between trade, corporate policies/business practices, and the promotion of human rights?
What approaches are emerging as norms and “best practices"?
Who are the principal stakeholders, what are their roles and motivations, and what have been their principal points of contention as well as opportunities for working together?
Is the growing attention to business and human rights issues largely a result of the inability of either national governments or international governmental organizations to address human rights issues adequately?
What has been the mix of mandatory/regulatory and voluntary/“self-regulatory” approaches utilized to address the links between human rights and both trade and business practices – and is this the right mix?
Put another way, what is the proper relationship between “corporate responsibility” through voluntary means and “corporate accountability” through laws and regulations?
The course will begin with several sessions designed to provide the foundations of relevant legal and policy developments, with special attention to the UNGPs. It will also include an examination of concepts of corporate responsibility and corporate accountability, and the relationship between the rules governing trade and international labor standards.
Throughout the course, students will be asked to examine the various approaches and differing roles of key stakeholders, including by playing the roles of those addressing the key issues from the perspectives of corporations, NGOs/civil society, and governments. The class will be divided into three groups for purposes of this “role playing” – with each section asked to adopt the three different set of perspectives during the course of the semester, both in students’ individual analysis of assigned readings and in group sessions during some of the classes.