Business and Human Rights

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Teaching Business and Human Rights Forum 2016
The 2016 participants of the Annual Teaching Business and Human Rights Forum. Photo credit: Andrew Rizzardi.

The Business and Human Rights program is dedicated to research, dialogue and teaching at the intersection of business and human rights. The program’s interdisciplinary projects, which draw widely upon Columbia’s faculty and resources, address cutting edge issues within business and human rights and contribute to the development and improvement of business and human rights standards, implementation, and accountability.

Contact: Joanne Bauer, program director

Teaching Business and Human Rights Forum

The Teaching Business and Human Rights Forum is a platform for collaboration among individuals teaching business and human rights worldwide. As of 2016, the Forum consists of over 280 professors or trainers in more than 180 institutions, in 32 countries. The Forum, supported jointly by ISHR and Columbia Law School's Human Rights Institute, seeks to promote and strengthen business and human rights education by fostering collaboration among its members.

The Forum hosts the following activities: an on-line discussion board, a syllabi bank, an annual members workshop, a Business and Human Rights Teaching Handbook , and occasional webinars. The Forum’sactivities, resources, and governance board, as well as information on how to become a member, may be accessed here.

Business and Human Rights Clinic

The Business and Human Rights Clinic is a full-year course jointly sponsored by the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) and ISHR, which brings together graduate students of SIPA, Human Rights Studies, and Columbia Law School’s LLM program to work collaboratively on cutting edge topics in business and human rights. Combining seminars, guest lectures, group work, and site visits, the Clinic is an interdisciplinary space for testing innovative models of business and human rights work, carried out in partnership with NGOs and other business and human rights practitioners. The Clinic is taught by Joanne Bauer, Adjunct Professor of International Affairs, SIPA.

For its first two years, beginning in September 2015, the Clinic’s inaugural year, the Clinic partnered with Inclusive Development International (IDI), an international NGO with expertise in land and natural resource rights. IDI supports and builds the capacity of local organizations and affected communities to defend their land and human rights in the face of harmful investment, trade and development. IDI's strategy relies on financial databases and open access online sources to map investment chains and place critical information in the hands of communities affected by forced eviction and related harms.

During the first year, 2015-2016, the Clinic helped to pioneer the methodology by test-driving it across fifteen cases, spanning a range of projects (mining, real estate, energy, agriculture) and continents (Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America). The Clinic experimented with different databases and research strategies, and recommended ways to improve efficiency and effectiveness, in mapping, analyzing pressure points, and creating advocacy strategies. The Clinic also traveled with IDI on two site visits to explain their findings directly to Client communities. In this way, the Clinic helped to support communities and NGOs in the Global South to hold development finance institutions and other investors accountable for the human rights impacts of their investment and procurement decisions.

During the second year, 2016-2017, the Clinic continued to support IDI to develop the methodology.  In order to better understand the efficacy of certain financial actors found in the investment chains as pressure points and how best to engage them, the 2016-2017 Clinic also undertook a study focusing on pension funds. The questions driving the study are:

  1. How do pension fund managers understand "human rights"?  
  2. How do human rights figures into investment decisions?
  3. How do fund managers get their information about human rights impacts of investee companies and how satisfied are they with that information?
  4. What if any steps do fund managers take when they learn of a human rights violation in an existing investment?  
  5. How do they engage with NGOs and how do pension fund managers think that engagement can be improved?


Development Finance and Accountability Project

Now more than ever transnational business plays a critical role in determining the fate of the poor in developing countries. Leaders of developing countries increasingly look to foreign capital to lift their countries out of poverty. In Africa, the world’s largest recipient of international aid, private capital flows to the region are nearly double that of Official Development Assistance (ODA). Globally, private investment and trade to developing countries dwarf the $135 billion in ODA the developed world provides. Moreover, we are facing the biggest infrastructure boom in history, with approximately US $6-9 trillion annually dedicated to ever larger scale projects that seek to attract over $190 billion of available private capital. Once directed towards developed states and select emerging economies, infrastructure funding is increasingly slated for the Global South. While these projects have the potential to lift millions out of poverty, reports of the harmful impacts ongoing infrastructure projects have had on communities indicate that they also constitute serious threats to already marginalized peoples. Often coupled with resource extraction, the projects tend to be located in environmentally and socially sensitive areas, including on lands inhabited by indigenous peoples and other vulnerable groups.

This project seeks to identify the accountability gaps in development finance and through research and multi-stakeholder dialogue address those gaps. The work focuses upon prevention of harm at the project conception stage, the reduction of harm through the project cycle, and providing effective remedy through improvements in accountability mechanisms.


Corporate Structures and Human Rights

What we call “the private sector” is in fact a diverse array of companies possessing particular structures of ownership and forms of governance. Ownership often determines whose interests the business prioritizes, while governance form defines the rules that determine how decisions are made. Ownership and governance forms can and often do play a defining role in determining how well companies are set up to address a business’ responsibilities to communities, workers, and customers.

Yet the business and human rights movement has largely neglected the structure or form of companies, and has instead looked to national and international law and policy to regulate business behavior. Attention to new ownership and governance forms could help the business and human rights movement to grapple with some of the difficult questions it faces, in particular, questions surrounding the limitations around the need for a company finding a “business case” to address human rights, and whether a company can be too big to undertake the required human rights due diligence that is the movement’s touchstone for responsible conduct. One alternative corporate form that appears to be particularly relevant insofar as it is envisioned by its proponents to be scalable and transform 20th century capitalism is the benefit corporation as well as the certified B Corps.

On May 24, 2016, the Business and Human Rights Program hosted a “Roundtable Discussion on Business Structures that Prioritize Human Rights.” The Roundtable brought together twenty-three experts working to develop and promote alternative corporate forms from the fields of business and human rights, corporate governance, impact investing, and social enterprise to consider whether these alternative forms can point the way for the business and human rights movement.


National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights

In 2013 the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights (UNWG), a special procedure of the Human Rights Council, called upon UN member states to develop National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights (NAPs). Since then the Business and Human Rights Program has been engaged in critical assessment of the prospects and needs of that effort, with special emphasis on the participation of Global South countries.

In 2013, the UNWG commissioned the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) at University of Witswatersrand, the Centre for Human Rights at University of Pretoria, the Asia Business and Rule of Law Program of Singapore Management University, together with Joanne Bauer, Senior Researcher, Business and Human Rights Program, to undertake collaborative research and organize regional dialogues to elucidate the challenges and opportunities of developing NAPs from a Global South perspective. The research team, known as the CALS-SMU Coalition, produced three submissions to the UN Working Group, and worked with the UN Working Group to incorporate the findings into the UN Working Group’s Guidance Document for states. At the 2015 UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva, four members of the coalition – Joanne Bauer, Josua Loots, Bonita Meyersfeld, and Nomonde Nyembe – presented the work at a side event on NAPs.