Since the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) were adopted by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011, they have diffused into policy frameworks, laws, and regulations across the globe. This special issue seeks to advance the interdisciplinary field of human rights research by examining key elements of the emerging transnational regime for the regulation of business and human rights. In seven original contributions, scholars from political science, law, accounting, and philosophy critically reflect on the theoretical foundations of the UNGPs, they analyze the effectiveness of implementation mechanisms and current regulatory practice, and they advance proposals for the future development of the business and human rights regime. In this introduction, we prepare the ground for these analyses, proceeding in three steps. Firstly, we argue that the adoption of the UNGPs has triggered a norm cascade which requires a distinctive, empirically oriented research agenda focusing on the scope, governance, and effectiveness of corporate human rights accountability norms and instruments. Secondly, we explain how the articles in this special issue contribute to that research agenda by addressing these themes. Thirdly, we provide an overview of the individual contributions and point out avenues for future research.
Following the endorsement of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in 2011, they have become widely regarded as “the most authoritative statement of the human rights duties or responsibilities of states and corporations adopted at the UN level” (De Schutter 2013: xvii).Footnote1 Developed in a worldwide consultation process by the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General (SRSG), John Ruggie, the UNGPs were aimed at tackling and preventing business-related human rights abuses by closing governance gaps in the largely unrestrained global market economy (Ruggie 2013: xxiii).
Although many corporations contribute positively to realizing human rights, e.g., through job creation, the production and distribution of goods, services, and infrastructure, business activities also impact negatively on human rights. Some of the most severe and widespread forms of corporate human rights abuse include the dislocation of indigenous communities without compensation or consultation, the impairment of people’s health and safety due to unfit working conditions and destruction of the environment, the leaking of individuals’ data to government agents, the denial of freedom of expression and of association, discrimination and sexual harassment at the workplace, and sweatshops, bonded labor, and child labor in the transnational supply chains of global brands (see Bernaz 2017: 1–2; Ruggie 2013: xv-xvi; ILO 2017). However, it is rather difficult to hold business enterprises to account for human rights abuses, for various reasons.
Conclusion and Avenues for Future Research
Taken together, the contributions to this special issue offer a rich multi-dimensional and transdisciplinary analysis of key elements of the business and human rights regime. On the one hand, they enhance our understanding of different conceptions of corporate human rights accountability, of the role and functions, the impact but also the limitations of important actors and governance instruments of that regime. On the other hand, the articles engage with these limitations in a critical yet constructive fashion, making proposals for resolving misalignments in the governance architecture and improving the effectiveness of specific instruments. In so doing, all contributions are driven by a normative commitment to strengthen corporate human rights accountability, help prevent business-related human rights abuses, and improve access to effective remedies for victims.
Building on the insights provided by the analyses in this special issue, as well as on the research agenda set out above, we identify three main tasks for future research in the business and human rights field. Firstly, scholarship needs to further investigate the scope and substance of changes in corporate human rights conduct in response to regulatory initiatives. This is not only to differentiate good corporate practice from rhetorical adaptation or strategic attempts to co-opt the human rights discourse but also to identify the underlying conditions for the effective socialization of business actors into norm acceptance and compliant behavior. Secondly, researchers need to keep pace with the evolution of, and changing trends in, the business and human rights regime. This implies the close monitoring and critical assessment of the construction, contestation, and transformation of human rights and accountability norms, as well as of the emergence and performance of actors and governance instruments, such as National Contact Points, National Action Plans, corporate reporting standards, and due diligence laws. Here, it is important to move beyond dominant perspectives on the Global North and extend the research focus to regulatory frameworks and corporate conduct at the starting point of transnational supply chains, especially in countries of the Global South. Finally, business and human rights scholars should continue to feed their academic expertise into the policy process and public debate at the local, national, and transnational levels. With their privileged access to the insights of multidisciplinary human rights scholarship, business and human rights scholars are in an ideal position to create awareness for the complexity of the issues at stake, help building bridges between opposing actors, and contribute to the enhancement of corporate human rights accountability.