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Redefining Business

Business and Human Rights: Not Just an Election Issue

Cancelled Stamp From The United Nations Featuring Human Rights.

Cancelled Stamp From The United Nations Featuring Human Rights.

By Faris Natour, Director & Lecturer, Human Rights & Business Initiative

A living wage, equal pay for equal work, access to healthcare, family leave, freedom of religion, and non-discrimination: what do these issues have in common?  They are all issues central to this year’s U.S. presidential election campaign.  And they are all fundamental human rights.  For many of us who have worked in business and human rights for many years, seeing human rights elevated to a central theme in this election is truly exciting.  These issues do not just concern all of us as human beings, they are also critical to business.

Leading companies in the U.S. and around the world are adopting policies and management systems to ensure that these and other international human rights are respected in the workplace, in their supply chain and wherever their products and services are used.  We established the Human Rights and Business Initiative at the Center for Responsible Business at Berkeley Haas precisely to help companies navigate these increasingly complex issues and to prepare our graduates to use the power of business to advance human rights.

Last year, on December 10, International Human Rights Day, we officially announced our Human Rights and Business Initiative with much optimism and confidence (but without attitude!).  We knew that Berkeley Haas, with its Defining Principles and Berkeley’s long history of human rights advocacy would be the ideal environment to lead an effort to embed human rights in management education.  After all, doing so is the embodiment of the Berkeley Haas principle “Question the Status Quo” and the initiative comes at a time when more and more companies are looking for human rights expertise when recruiting future managers.

As we enter our second academic year, we are excited about the progress we have made so far and the promise of what’s ahead.  The Human Rights and Business Initiative works across three pillars and we’ve seen some early successes across all three:

Teaching: Not surprisingly, we have seen tremendous interest in business and human rights among our students.  Our undergraduate business course “Human Rights and Business” saw enrollment double from the previous year, and we will offer an MBA course, “Managing Human Rights in Business” for the first time this fall.  One of the first courses of its kind anywhere in the world, our students will find themselves in the shoes of corporate human rights managers assessing and addressing impacts from working conditions in global supply chains to freedom of speech on the Internet.  They will learn directly from practitioners advancing human rights at leading companies around the world.

Research: We aim to leverage our academic strength to produce actionable research on critical business and human rights challenges.  In February 2016, we have had the pleasure to join UN OCHA, CITRIS, and Article One, to convene leading experts from business, humanitarian organizations, and innovation labs, to explore ways in which business can support humanitarian innovation, leading to a summary paper to inform the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul.  Together with UC Berkeley Law School and University of Washington Law School, we have developed a new research project on the financial materiality of human rights, which we intend to launch this fall as a formal research initiative with multiple partners from academia, and the investor and international policy communities.

Collaboration:  Following our symposium on humanitarian innovation, we brought together experts and practitioners to explore what corporate human rights leadership can and should look like.  At a packed event as part of the CRB’s Peterson Series, we heard from business and human rights leaders such as Microsoft’s Dan Bross and Wilma Wallace, who led human rights at Gap Inc., on their approach to integrating human rights in complex and ever-changing businesses.   We are encouraged by the discussions that these events have sparked – among faculty, business leaders, and most importantly, our  students – and we plan to host similar events in the coming months, on human rights in global supply chains, and on the business and human rights implications of big data and artificial intelligence.

As we get ready for the new academic year, it is truly exciting to see the interest and enthusiasm of our students and the entire Berkeley-Haas community.  Yet, the daily headlines of human rights abuses in global supply chains, infringements of privacy and free speech, and yes, this election year’s increasingly polarized political debate about what should be universally accepted, fundamental human rights, remind us that we have a long way ahead.  Business can and should be at the forefront of advancing respect for human rights around the world. And it all starts with embedding human rights in management education – right here, at Berkeley Haas.

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