Research project

Business and human rights: exploring the potential and challenges of a UN framework convention

Corporations, their activities, influence, incentive structures and business models are deeply implicated in inter-linked environmental, economic and social challenges with profound implications for human rights. This raises the question, through what international standards and mechanisms should corporate human rights impacts be addressed?

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Start date

April 2021

Completion date

January 2022



Interdisciplinary Incubator Grant (IIG)

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.

Seminar series 

To explore this possibility further, the University of Dundee Business and Human Rights Network brought together almost 30 internationally-recognised scholars and experts from a range of fields to discuss the merits, challenges and opportunities presented by the framework model in 5 online seminars. 

The first seminar, Framework instruments and human rights treaties: insights from experience convened leading experts to examine the operation of framework-style treaties in other policy domains, including international labour regulation, indigenous peoples’ rights, environment and climate change, as well as existing international human rights treaties.

The second seminar, A business and human rights framework treaty: contours and challenges generated new inter-disciplinary 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, providing 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. 

Supporting the operation of a framework treaty in practice, thirdly focused on institutional design elements and contextual factors shaping the influence of a business and human rights framework instrument.

The series’ fourth seminar, Business and human rights: governance challenges in an era of transition explored 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.

Finally, Links to the business and human rights governance constellation, considered 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.

Additional outputs and next steps

The seminar series has prompted a new collaboration between Dr Methven O'Brien, Dr Michael Reigner and Völkerrechtsblog towards an online symposium around Dr Methven O'Brien's framework treaty model that is currently in production to be published in Spring 2022. In turn this will provide a platform for a Special Issue of World Comparative Law (VRÜ/WCL) to be produced during 2022. 

A final online seminar will coincide with the launch of these new publications.

In addition, the seminar series has triggered new discussions of the UN Treaty debate involving Dr Methven O’Brien at the University of La Sabana, Colombia and Kyoto University, Japan.

Alongside the seminar series, the University of Dundee School of Social Sciences Interdisciplinary Incubator Grant facilitated the production of a draft literature review and provided for the scoping of a large grant application.

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Project lead(s)

Dr Claire Methven O'Brien