Where do we go from here? Business & Human Rights Post- #BrexiTrump

By Tara Van Ho

This year’s UN Forum on Business and Human Rights took place last week. Repeatedly, speakers raised the significance of #brexiTrump (the combination of the #brexit and Trump votes) while questioning its impact for the field. This post attempts to respond to questions from colleagues in the field about where we go from here and how we support students who want to pursue B&HR.

For those unfamiliar with business and human rights, it’s the subfield that focuses on how businesses negatively impact human rights and how we should best respond to those impacts. The focus is on the negative impacts because while we recognize that businesses – all businesses – can have positive impacts on human rights, businesses are not allowed to “offset” their negative human rights impacts by providing positive ones elsewhere. Instead, businesses are expected, at a minimum, to respect the range of human rights for all people, to mitigate any threats they can identify in advance, and to remedy any impacts that are unavoidable. Businesses are to take responsibility for their impacts across the range of human rights (the leading document calls for them to consider the rights present in the UDHR, ICCPR, ICESCR, and the ILO’s fundamental Conventions) and for all individuals they impact.

So in light of #brexiTrump, where should the field go? I have three “takeaways” for the field of B&HR.

  1. We share concerns with Trump supporters. Let’s influence the discussion.

The uncomfortable truth is that B&HR shares concerns about the impact of globalization, business operations, trade, and investment with those who voted for Trump and #brexit. For years, we in the field have acknowledged that trade and investment agreements can have devastating consequences for local economies, communities, workers, and citizens. We have called for managing agreements to ensure they do not reduce viable and sustainable employment and do not harm a state’s ability to protect its citizens and residents. We have talked about the need for corporate leaders to be held accountable for their impacts. We have recognized the threat corporate big data can pose. And we have claimed to be on the side of globalization’s losers.

Those are our similarities with Trump. We, thankfully, also have our differences. Our concerns are based not in xenophobia but on the impact corporations and globalization have on the realization of human rights for each and every person. The benefit to our shared concerns, however, is that we in the field of B&HR have an opportunity to take Trump’s words and put knowledge to power by discussing the management of trade and trade agreements from a human rights perspective. We have one to four decades of a head start in understanding where the legal and practical problems exist and in wrestling with the appropriate balance to be struck between interests. We should be ready to influence the next stages of this discussion and to address what is needed to protect people in all economies and states.

  1. It is now clear that businesses have an interest in promoting human rights.

Traditionally, the business case for human rights has been discussed in terms of an individual business actor’s gains from embracing human rights. #BrexiTrump clarifies that the business case for human rights is true on a larger level than we have been discussing it and that there is actually a macroeconomic case for human rights that all businesses should support. Businesses benefit from greater movement of both people and goods – mantelpieces of globalization that #BrexiTrump seems to have rejected.

Commonly, businesses and developing states first encountering the field argue that, “your human rights violations are my competitive advantages.” #BrexiTrump says otherwise. Individual businesses may see short-term profit from human rights violations – from bad labour conditions to the use of police to disperse protesters to the use of extrajudicial killings to silence those opponents – but in doing so, businesses can undermine their long-term interests. Importantly, polling indicates Trump gained more support from middle class Americans than from the working class. Yet, these individuals rejected neoliberal policies that prioritize profits at the expense of human rights (though I realize they would not put it in those terms). Trump’s rhetoric included calls for the US to better address corporate tax avoidance and a reliance on outsourcing jobs that harms communities whose labour, education, and tax breaks were the foundation for a businesses’ growth. The wide embrace of this call now threatens to undermine trade partnerships, investment agreements, and the use of supply chains. In essence, it poses a threat to modern business practices.

But #brexiTrump was not only a rejection of globalization; both votes were laced with racist and nationalistic rhetoric that rejected “liberal” notions of human rights and inclusive societies. When people shout (literally and figuratively) “foreigners out,” it does not only threaten Muslims (and other foreigners) in the US and UK. It threatens all who depend on integrated societies. The call to “leave” can affect foreign companies who wish to sell their products, and any company hoping to hire top-quality employees. Businesses therefore have a general interest in embracing human rights law and in promoting human rights discourse, not just through their own due diligence but throughout society as a whole.

We must look to form new alliances. Businesses should partner with NGOs and academics to develop trainings for their workers throughout their operations, including in developed states. They should also look to support human rights education and literacy throughout society, including in schools. These partnerships need to be authentic, not just PR-centered opportunities in which the funding runs out as soon as the business, its industry, or neoliberal policies generally are criticized. The purpose is to bring about lasting and sustainable change that can support an integrated market. That can only happen if NGOs and academics are encouraged to remain critical, but receive the funding to be effective with that criticism. That work provides a value for businesses, even if it is indirect.

  1. Human rights activists in the Global South have many lessons to teach us northerners.

Human rights activists need to do a better job of engaging, explaining, and educating on human rights within our societies. Often, human rights are portrayed as “protections for terrorists and illegal immigrants” (true statement told to me by multiple border agents at US and UK points of entry). People in our communities do not always understand how human rights directly benefits them, why human rights law is constructed as it is, or why we require or expect compliance with these legal standards. I will confess that at times I have gotten easily frustrated with those who fail to see an obvious and inherent value in this work. But we need to stop that and engage with people where they are, not with where we wish them to be. While working to deepen our field, we need to continually go back to the basics and human rights – beyond the headlines – to the population as a whole.

Grassroots activists in the global South often do this, but those of us in the global North are less effective at this. We need to use the variety of means at our disposal to communicate to a diverse population the meaning, content, value, and benefits of human rights. This should include using common media like newspapers, radio, television, blogs, and both fictional and non-fictional books, as well as other art forms like poetry, photography, paintings, and plays.

Our industry may be under threat, but it will certainly not collapse because of Trump. Use this as an opportunity to explain human rights and engage with those who do not yet understand the benefit they receive. Build partnerships both domestically and globally, but never, never, never, never give in.


Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are the author(s) alone.

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