Business Ethics and Human Rights, from Theory to Practice

Research workshop

Chaired by Dr. Ana-Maria Pascal

Regent’s University London, 10 September 2019

In the context of on-going consultations around the proposed UN Treaty for transnational business and human rights, the debate has recently focused on hard v. soft law, or mandatory v. voluntary initiatives. This workshop will address the question of what works, in practice, to increase corporate accountability and support for human rights. Please click here to access the programme.

Key topics:

  • The proposed UN Treaty on Transnational Business and Human Rights;
  • UNGP implementation through National Action Plans and other initiatives;
  • Collaboration between state and business agents on human rights issues;
  • Voluntary initiatives to help businesses increase their support for human rights;
  • Victims’ access to justice;
  • Company human rights due diligence;
  • Recent developments in whistleblowing policy, and implications for human rights;
  • The role of the state in company disclosures on social responsibility and human rights.

List of speakers:

  • Lord Michael Hastings, Chancellor of Regent’s University London. Human rights, between law and morality;
  • Catie Shavin, Director at Global Business Initiative. Insights from business practice, with a focus on access to remedy and/or policy developments;
  • Dr. Aurora Voiculescu, Reader in Business Ethics, University of Westminster. The Long Road to Business and Human Rights Reform: Law, Policy and Social Justice in the Cotton Fields of Uzbekistan;
  • Dr. Kit Barton, Principal Lecturer in Leadership, Management & Ethics, Regent’s University London. Eventual alignment: Global ethical principles in business;
  • Dr. Opi Outhwaite, Senior Lecturer in Law, St Mary’s University. Promotion of human rights within the World Trade Organisation’s Government Procurement Agreement;
  • Dr. Wim Vandekerckhove, Reader in Business Ethics, University of Greenwich. Regulatory developments on whistleblowing;
  • Doug Specht, Senior Lecturer in Media and Communications, University of Westminster. Human Rights: Mappings, Surveillance, and Sousveillance;
  • Dr. Ana-Maria Pascal, Principal Lecturer in Philosophy, Business Ethics, and Entrepreneurship, Regent’s University London and Zhiwei Hu, Beijing Language and Culture University. Government guidance and company disclosures on CSR and Human Rights in China.

Summary of the Workshop

This one-day research workshop was a true intellectual feast.

Lord Hastings set the scene with a thought-provoking talk on WHAT are we talking about, when we talk about human rights, in this era of digitisation, when most consequential decision are (soon to be) made by computers?

Catie Shavin offered a detailed account of what works in business practice, from her 10 year experience working with practitioners globally and in key regions. She focused on three things: what progress they are seeing, at GBI (and the role of UNGP in this); the use of regulatory tools to strengthen and scale company action; and the need for safe spaces where business practitioners can exchange lessons from and reflections on their practices and approaches. She explained how, compared to 10 and 5 years ago, companies are now much more committed to go deeper with their due diligence and integrate human rights into their key decision-making process (e.g. on M&As or disposals). On regulation, the GBI released a briefing with Clifford Chance earlier this year. Finally, on recognising the need for internal approaches (as opposed to external regulation), the GBI launched a new tool last year, the Business Practice Portal. The conclusion was, all stakeholders have a critical role to play – not one group, however powerful or diligent, can tackle the human rights challenge alone.

Dr Aurora Voiculescu took the series of practical examples further, focusing on an on-going project with cotton fields supply chains in Uzbekistan – the 7th cotton producer in the world. The project is a good example of multi-stakeholder collaboration, and Dr Voiculescu explained the role of government, foreign and local companies, the World Bank, domestic finance and labour in the supply chains in Uzbekistan, and the resulting intricacies in on-going efforts to reduce child labour in the country.

The session ended where it started – with a reflection on business ethics. Dr Kit Barton, our ‘in-house’ expert, built a convincing case in favour of universal values, based on the distinction between cultural relativism (which exists and is factually justified) and ethical relativism (which should not exist, because it would lead to unacceptable circumstances).

The afternoon session focused on the role of governments in supporting human rights. Dr Opi Outhwaite opened the proceedings with a paper on government procurement, and the gap between hard law and soft law on human rights. The issue of government procurement can also be seen as an international trade concern. Dr Outhwaite highlighted the leverage that states have, to influence their suppliers (and their human rights agenda), given their significant purchasing power; and the long-established precedent that exists for the use of government procurement as a tool to promote social policies.

This was followed by a good look at the EU Directive on whistleblower protection – based on in-depth document analysis – and how it relates to freedom, security and autonomy. Dr Wim Vandekerckhove used two views of negative freedom – Isaiah Berlin’s and Skinner’s – to explore the struggle of a campaigning platform of trade unions and civil society organisations, in the coming about of the new EU Directive.

This was followed by a talk by Doug Specht, on the link between human rights mapping (understood in a wide sense) and surveillance. Doug Specht – a chartered cartographer – examined the history of the cartographic ‘gaze’ and how this became embedded in new technologies; he then explored the limitations this led to, and offered ways of moving forward, through what he called sousveillance projects – aimed to break away from ‘the cartographic gaze’ to create new representations of the world that avoid the process of ‘re-othering’ and further subjugation.

The workshop ended with a presentation by Dr Ana-Maria Pascal and Zhiwei Hu on their year-long project about CSR guidance and company reporting in China. They examine the interplay between national and international standards, stock exchanges and sector specific guides – and their role in top 50 companies reporting on social and environmental responsibilities and human rights, in 2017. This work is the outcome of a pilot project on business and human rights in countries where no National Action Plans exist for implementing the UN Guiding Principles.