How powerful is a 'human rights' framing in terms of the overall 'responsible business' agenda?
Next year will be a decade since the rare unanimous endorsement by the UN Human Rights Council of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs / BHR).
The UN Working Group on BHR has set up an open consultation to take stock of the impact and implementation of the UNGPs and -- in very UN-speak -- chart a 'roadmap' for the UNGPs over the next decade to 2030.
Much could be written about the UNGPs including on the extent or otherwise of their uptake over the last decade.
For one thing -- as some previous posts have hinted at, and as my next post will cover -- they really do not appear to have gained particular traction in terms of the search by governments, Big Tech, civil society and others for suitable and legitimate frameworks for the governance of responsible AI and other new technologies.
Here I will limit my observations to one impression from the consultation concept note. I wonder whether this puts too great an expectation on the transformative, emancipatory, or remedial power of 'human rights' as a vector for governance and change.
The concept note mentions the UNGPs in the context of 'sustainable development and stability' (notably climate change), rising inequalities and pervasive corruption; rapid technological change... widespread fragility, conflict and violence...'. It includes a call to embed the UNGPs more concretely in climate change and sustainability debates. It is one thing to draw attention to complex inter-linkages (e.g. the UNGPs with the SDGs), but it may be another to envisage that human rights-based approaches and arguments ought to be at the heart of the range of issues raised in the note. For one thing, business may be daunted enough by the scope of the UNGPs agenda even narrowly framed, and wary of 'responsibility creep'.
Others have written on the secular decline of 'human rights' as a powerful framework for socio-political action (e.g. Hopgood 2013, Posner 2014; Moyn 2010+; compare e.g. Sikkink 2018).
Yet one doesn't have to subscribe to the 'end-times / twilight of human rights' school to recognise that while there are obvious intersections with issues such as climate change or corporate taxation, it remains far from obvious that simply re-framing those debates in human rights terms suddenly gives them far greater urgency, appeal, traction ... it is not obvious that business (or government) actors suddenly sit up just because a familiar claim is suddenly made in human rights terms, and the contrary can be true ...
For my part, an 'ambitious roadmap' for the UNGPs must proceed, at least in part, from a recognition that framing an issue in terms of human rights -- especially individual rights claims against the state, or business -- is not necessarily conceptually persuasive nor a panacea in advocacy / strategy terms.
In a previous (2018) post I was deliberately provocative in asking if BHR had 'lost its way': here.
There among other things I wrote this, and reading the 2020 concept note I have the same reaction, really, and will put this out there:
"Yet the question arises whether we should be a bit more strategic about what is likely to gain traction as a BHR issue, and about how widely we frame BHR, and about what we think corporations and other enterprises really have a meaningful responsibility for.
... Just how useful and effective is the 'human rights' paradigm / lexicon in shifting business (and state) behaviour around social impact? However tempting it is to invoke it in support of all manner of worthy societal campaigns, is it really that effective?"