Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is losing steam. Many – perhaps too many? – corporations have embraced it, but too often they seem to look at it merely as a new source for growth and profits or as an act of charity, rather than as a philosophy that transforms the way they do business. As a consequence, criticism has been mounting in recent times. CSR, such is the impression, is lacking force and overall impact, and it has not kept what it once promised.

A different, still rather new debate focusing on business and human rights (BHR) is making bigger waves these days. Of course, the struggle of those whose fundamental rights are affected by business activities is as old as business itself, but a systematic scholarly debate bringing business and human rights together started to emerge only in the mid-1990s. Twenty years into this debate, BHR has become one of the most relevant debates in the broader realm of corporate responsibility and it has matured into an academic field in its own right.

Needless to say, for many, business and human rights does not seem like a match made in heaven either. Incidents like the Rana Plaza factory crash, which left scores of workers dead or severely injured, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or environmental destruction by oil companies in the Nigerian Niger Delta, which has destroyed thousands of livelihoods, or the collusion of companies with corrupt and oppressive governments around the world often seem to characterize the relationship between the two more aptly as “business vs. human rights”. Some might see human rights as not being the business of business to begin with. Indeed, until very recently, human rights were firmly associated with and addressed to governments. The responsibility of companies, on the other hand, was perceived as being met when complying with local laws, rather than with international human rights principles.

The evolving discussion on BHR is challenging and indeed changing this traditional, state-centric view on human rights. A broad consensus is emerging today that companies have a responsibility at least to respect human rights, which is independent of local laws and regulations. Many would even argue that beyond human rights respect, corporations should also contribute proactively to human rights protection and realization.

Importantly, BHR may be able to correct precisely some of the alleged shortcomings of CSR. Of particular importance in this regard are the more active role of and reliance on the law in BHR, a closer integration of BHR with companies’ core business activities and processes, and a much more direct involvement of governments in the BHR agenda setting process. There is considerable momentum in this field and these elements may help to sustain it over time. Furthermore, a focus on human rights can provide much-needed guidance for often scattered and untargeted CSR approaches. It helps bundle and focus energy, rather than dispersing it. While it is still too early to make conclusive statements about the uptake and impact of the BHR “movement” in the corporate world, its trajectory seems promising.

It is against this background that we are launching the Business and Human Rights Journal (BHRJ) as a necessary and important step in the institutionalization of this young inter-discipline. Our hope is to contribute further to the growth and development of this important discussion, to help bridge legal and non-legal conversations on the topic and, not least, to foster meaningful dialogue between theory and practice.

Florian Wettstein, Co-editor in chief, Business and Human Rights Journal

 

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