Business and Human Rights Network

A framework treaty on business and human rights: Interdisciplinary insights

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The world faces unprecedented and inter-linked environmental, economic and social challenges with profound implications for human rights. Besides climate change, catastrophic biodiversity loss and unsustainable resource consumption, these include demographic change, deepening global inequalities and trends of asset concentration, as highlighted during the Covid-19 pandemic. Meanwhile financialisation and the commercialisation of the public sphere and private communications carry implications for democracy’s ability to sustain itself that are still emerging.

Corporations, their activities, influence, incentive structures and business models are deeply implicated in such problems. This raises the question, through what international standards and mechanisms should corporate human rights impacts be addressed? Recent decades have witnessed an explosion of new initiatives, from individual company codes of conduct to multi-lateral trade, investment and financial instruments, sustainability reporting rules and supply chain legislation. In the United Nations (UN) attempts to define international human rights standards addressed to business have spanned several decades. In 2011, the Human Rights Council endorsed the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), a soft-law framework.

A parallel process to develop a business and human rights treaty launched in 2014 has struggled to make progress.  Yet interest from key players suggests that a framework treaty on business and human rights, as proposed by  Dr. Claire Methven O’Brien, Baxter Fellow and Lecturer in Law at the University of Dundee, might offer a route to break the impasse. To explore this possibility further, this series of inter-disciplinary online seminars will convene internationally-recognised scholars and experts to address questions including:

  • What should be the scope and content of a framework treaty on business and human rights, taking into account existing standards, current problems and future needs?
  • What institutional design features could help to make framework treaty regime effective?
  • What lessons can be learned from experience under other international framework treaties?
  • How can more constructive diplomacy on a framework treaty be fostered?
  • How can we optimise the contribution of a framework treaty in addressing threats to human rights from business activities, but also wider global governance challenges, now and in the future?

Online seminar series part I:  September 2021

1. Framework instruments and human rights treaties: insights from experience.
Wednesday 15 September 2021 12:00-13:30 BST

This opening seminar will draw together leading experts to examine the operation of framework-style instruments in other policy domains, including international labour regulation, indigenous peoples’ rights, environment and climate change, as well as existing international human rights treaties. The panel will explore the strengths and challenges of framework instruments in such contexts, their normative structure and institutional design, as well as factors influencing their effectiveness in practice – providing a platform to reflect on the possible merits of a framework-style treaty in the business and human rights domain.

Panellists include Prof Barbara Koremenos (University of Michigan, USA), Dr Claire Charters (University of Auckland, New Zealand), Prof Shin-Ichi Ago (Ritsumeikan University, Japan), Dr Annalisa Savaresi (University of Eastern Finland, University of Stirling), Dr Jacques Hartmann (University of Dundee)

The seminar will be chaired by Dr Claire Methven O'Brien (University of Dundee)

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2. A business and human rights framework treaty: contours and challenges.
Thursday 23 September 2021, 12:00-13:30 BST

In light of Dr. Claire Methven O’Brien’s 2020 and 2021 proposed draft framework treaty texts, this seminar will seek leading experts’ reflections on the objectives and role of a business and human rights treaty seen from the perspective of other fields of international law, including trade, investment, labour, international private and humanitarian law and regional human rights treaties. This will provide a platform to explore strengths and weaknesses of a framework approach to a business and human rights treaty as well as what should be its main elements.

Panellists include Prof Peter Muchlinski (SOAS, University of London), Dr Eva Jueptner (University of Dundee), Dr Alex Ansong (Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration), Prof Dr Markus Krajewski (FAU, Germany), Dr Nicholas Bueno (UniDistance Suisse, Switzerland), Prof. Olga Martin-Ortega (University of Greenwich, UK) and  Prof Humberto Cantú Rivera (University of Monterrey, Mexico).

The seminar will be chaired by Dr Claire Methven O'Brien (University of Dundee)

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3. Supporting the operation of a framework treaty in practice.
Thursday 30 September 2021, 14:00-15:30 BST

How should a business and human rights framework treaty regime be designed to have greatest impact preventing and remediating abuses, and securing effective accountability of duty-bearers? What obstacles to effectiveness can be avoided? What insights about its potential – and likely limits - as an engine of human rights governance in the corporate sector are available from existing studies? This seminar will draw together leading experts to identify institutional design elements and contextual factors shaping the influence of a business and human rights framework instrument.

Panelists include Professor Başak Çalı (Hertie School, Berlin), Professor Erika George (University of Utah), Dr Anja Mihr (Center on Governance through Human Rights, Berlin), Dr Tom Pegram (University College London) and Dr Michael Riegner (Humboldt University Berlin).

The seminar will be chaired by Dr Claire Methven O'Brien (University of Dundee)

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Online seminar series part II:  October 2021

4. Business and human rights: governance challenges in an era of transition

Wednesday 6 October 2021, 12:00–13:30

This seminar will set the wider context for the business and human rights treaty discussion by exploring the human rights dimensions of key social, economic and environmental governance challenges; how the business sector is implicated in them; and what might be the contribution of a UN business and human rights framework treaty regime to their effective resolution.

Panellists include Professor Lorna McGregor (University of Essex), Professor Morris Altman (University of Dundee), Dr Axel Marx (University of Leuven), Professor Brigit Toebes (University of Groningen) and Dr Gale Raj-Reichert (Bard College Berlin).

The seminar will be chaired by Dr Claire Methven O'Brien (University of Dundee)

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5. Links to the business and human rights governance constellation

Thursday 14 October 2021, 14:00–15:30

This panel will consider how a business and human rights framework treaty should connect with wider institutions and mechanisms of business and human rights governance, for instance, in the International Labour Organisation and Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development; sector and value-chain based initiatives; corporate governance, reporting and accounting standards; international financial institutions; regional bodies; and national measures including national action plans on business and human rights.

Panellists include Professor Larry Catá Backer (Pennsylvania State University), Professor Dorothée Baumann-Pauly (University of Geneva), Dr David Birchall (London South Bank University), Dr Jernej Letnar Černič (Nova Univerza, Slovenia), Dr Sorcha McLeod (University of Copenhagen) and Dr Miho Taka (Coventry University).

The seminar will be chaired by Dr Claire Methven O'Brien (University of Dundee)

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6. Next steps: how to move the treaty process forward

Concluding the series, this seminar will reflect on how the UN process can now be steered to a positive conclusion: an effective, consensus-backed instrument that supplies dynamic and effective accountability for business-related human rights impacts now and in the future.

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