As human rights have become an increasingly prominent issue to businesses, the need and demand for education on business and human rights (BHR) is growing. But what exactly does BHR education involve? Who does, and should, BHR education target? Who are the key players in BHR education, and how do they get their message across? How is the issue of human rights framed to corporate audiences, and what implications does this have for their interpretation?

These questions were at the heart of a panel event at the Faculty of Law, University of Oxford on 4th June 2018. The first panel focused on BHR education in academia, and featured Professor Alan Morrison of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, Dr Lara Bianchi of the Alliance Manchester Business School and the Business and Human Rights Catalyst, and Dr Tara Van Ho of the University of Essex and the Essex Business and Human Rights Project. The second panel involved BHR educators from the corporate world: Åse Bergstedt, an experienced sustainability officer who has worked in large telco and banking corporations, Cindy Berman, Head of Modern Slavery Strategy at the Ethical Trading Initiative, and Michael Quayle, an associate in the Global Business and Human Rights Group at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP. The Oxford Business and Human Rights Research Network hosted the event, and John Morrison, CEO of the Institute for Human Rights and Business, acted as chair. Anja Meinhardt of Justice in Motion provided an alternative perspective on education of human rights through the performing arts. In this blog, we share three thought-provoking messages from the event.

1) Targeting the right audience: missing key players

Firstly, who are the targets of BHR education? All of the panellists observed that human rights are generally not of interest to many current and emerging business actors in business. In particular millennials at business and law schools and mid-level managers at large corporations tend to be uninterested in BHR issues. Tara Van Ho noted that when BHR courses are taught as electives, the majority of students will not choose them, and the students that do take the course are already convinced of the relevance of the matter, turning teaching BHR into preaching to the choir while the majority of students will not come into contact with the topic at all. In order to give all students an understanding of human rights issues in business, human rights need to be integrated within the core curriculum, either as a subject in its own right or at least integrated throughout mainstream subjects. This, Alan Morrison pointed out, is a big challenge and demands a creative solution, as BHR is a multidisciplinary topic that does not sit comfortably within any particular subject.

The lack of interest carries on into corporate life. In Åse Bergstedt’s experience, the main challenge in addressing a company’s human rights impacts lies not so much in the buy-in of the board, but middle management. “The senior manager is the same person in the board room as he is at the dinner table,” she said, “while the middle (wo)men are trying to meet their targets, seeking promotion. There is no remuneration for being ethical. Ethics are not part of their salary.” This highlights the challenge of getting key players in charge of much of the day-to-day running of companies to recognise the importance of human rights to their work.

2) The delivery and messengers of human rights in business

Secondly, how do BHR educators get their message across? The panels highlighted the significance of the “how” and “who” questions. Both Cindy Berman and Michael Quayle, in their role as external advisors, noted the influence and important responsibility of lawyers and not-for-profit organisations in educating businesses about human rights. Business lawyers, business schools and law schools must increasingly grapple with concepts derived from the UN Guiding Principles,, given the increasing complexity in businesses and global supply chains and the rapidly developing and complex legal obligations to identify, mitigate, remediate and prevent the impacts of human rights violations that occur as a result of their business operations. In particular, with the ear of senior executives and legal counsel, lawyers have a unique role in helping key decision-makers understand relevant concepts and legal considerations, and translate them into strategies that are cognisant of the rising expectations of governments, civil society, investors and consumers.

Anja Meinhardt, the artistic director of Justice in Motion, a physical theatre company that raises awareness about social injustice, shed a different light on the delivery of human rights messages to business. She showed that convincing corporate audiences of the relevance of human rights issues to their company does not necessarily need to be communicated through words, but that the performing arts can form a powerful method of bringing pressing BHR issues, such as modern slavery, to light.

3) The translation of human rights to business contexts

A third theme was the language of human rights and their translation into the corporate context. While most people will have a general understanding of human rights, Åse Bergstedt pointed out that businesses need human rights experts who can speak business language. Lara Bianchi noted a similar linguistic conundrum in business school settings. These comments raise questions about the meaning of human rights in the business context, and whether the translation of human rights into business language will inadvertently become the rhetoric of risk management. With the focus being business efficacy, human rights may have more traction in business activities if they are included within the overall calculation of corporate risk. The key question is, does this translation into the language of risk undermine the emancipatory nature of human rights? More importantly, this conversation highlights the need to be mindful of the language we are using to convey human rights and the need to critically assess concepts and ideas that we perhaps have been taking for granted.


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