Thursday, February 4, 2016

The thorny relationship between business and human rights

For the past four weeks I have been experimenting with a new class called Transnational Business and Human Rights. My students include law students, graduate students, journalists, and accountants. Only half have taken a business class and the other half have never taken a human rights class. This is a challenge, albeit, a fun one. During our first week, we discussed CSR, starting off with Milton Friedman. We then used a business school case study from Copenhagen and the students acted as the public relations executive for a Danish company that learned that its medical product was being used in the death penalty cocktail in the United States. This required students to consider the company’s corporate responsibility profile and commitments and provide advice to the CEO based on a number of factors that many hadn’t considered- the role of investors, consumer reactions, the pressure from NGOs, and the potential effect on the stock price for the Danish company based on its decisions. During the first three weeks the students have focused on the corporate perspective learning the language of the supply chain and enterprise risk management world.

This week they are playing the role of the state and critiquing and developing the National Action Plans that require states to develop incentives and penalties for corporations to minimize human rights impacts. Examining the NAPs, dictated by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, requires students to think through the consultation process that countries, including the United States, undertake with a number of stakeholders such as unions, academics, NGOs and businesses. To many of those in the human rights LLM program and even some of the traditional law students, this is all a foreign language and they are struggling with these different stakeholder perspectives.

Over the rest of the semester they will read and role play on up to the minute issues such as: 1) the recent Tech Terror Summit and the potential adverse effects of the right to privacy; 2) access to justice and forum non conveniens, arguing an appeal from a Canadian court’s decision related to Guatemalan protestors shot by security forces hired by a company incorporated in Canada with US headquarters; 3) the difficulties that even best in class companies such as Nestle have complying with their own commitments and certain disclosure laws when their supply chain uses both child labor and slaves; 4) the Dodd-Frank conflict minerals debate in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the EU, where students will play the role of the State Department, major companies such as Apple and Intel, the NGO community, and socially-responsible investors debating some key corporate governance and human rights issues; 5) corporate codes of conduct and the ethical, governance, and compliance aspects of entering the Cuban market, given the concerns about human rights and confiscated property; 6) corporate culpability for the human rights impacts of mega sporting events such as the Super Bowl, World Cup, and the Olympics; 7) human trafficking (I’m proud to have a speaker from my former company Ryder, a sponsor of Truckers Against Traffickers); 8) development finance, SEC disclosures, bilateral investment treaties, investor rights and the grievance mechanisms for people harmed by financed projects (the World Bank, IMF, and Ex-Im bank will be case studies); 9) the race to the bottom for companies trying to reduce labor expenses in supply chains using the garment industry as an example; and 10) a debate in which each student will represent the actual countries currently arguing for or against a binding treaty on business and human rights.

Of course, on a daily basis, business and human rights stories pop up in the news if you know where to look and that makes teaching this so much fun. We are focusing a critical lens on the United States as well as the rest of the world, and it's great to hear perspectives from those who have lived in Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America. It's a whole new world for many of the LLM and international students, but as I tell them if they want to go after the corporations and effect change, they need to understand the pressure points. Using business school case studies has provided them with insights that most of my students have never considered. Most important, regardless of whether the students embark on a human rights career, they will now have more experience seeing and arguing controversial issues from another vantage point. That’s an invaluable skill set for any advocate.

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/business_law/2016/02/the-thorny-relationship-between-business-and-human-rights.html

Business Associations, Comparative Law, Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Human Rights, International Business, International Law, Investment Banking, Law School, Lawyering, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation, Teaching | Permalink

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