When twitter clued me in that the Speakers List was up for this year’s UN Forum on business and human rights, I was excited to see how many academics, and how many female academics, were on this year’s panel. Over at my own blog, last year and this year, I’ve attempted to highlight the importance of including academics generally, and women academics specifically, in the Forum.

Unfortunately, it appears that nothing has really changed.

This is the first of three posts I’ll do on this topic. I want to start by addressing why the number of academics matters. The next post will address the number of academics speaking this year, and how that compares to what should be expected. Finally, I’ll address how women academics are featured at the Forum.

As I noted last year, academics are a distinct stakeholder group, albeit a very diverse one. By asserting that we are a stakeholder group, I naturally raise the question: what is our ‘stake’?  That’s not an easy answer to give because we’re not a homogeneous entity (neither, for the record, is any other stakeholder group).

Some academics have a decade of experience working with NGOs, NHRIs, states or intergovernmental organizations and are intent on pushing for stronger regulation. Some are intent on ensuring the regulations are not too burdensome for businesses. Others are still figuring out what business and human rights means or where they sit within the field. These differences of opinion also represent differences in our ‘stakes’. But, of course, this is true for every other stakeholder group as well. Businesses, states, and civil society do not come to the Forum with one voice; they come with a variety of intentions and a variety of stakes.

Despite our differences, there are also important commonalities that pull academics together and set us apart from other stakeholders. By its nature, academia is intended to further discussions, debates, and developments through strong research developed over time with critical reflection. Academics have a luxury that is not enjoyed by the other three stakeholder groups: we are not always working to immediately solve a problem. We can follow the research where it goes, rather than trying to push it in a particular direction because that is what we need or want to satisfy shareholders, donors, or our political base.

We also have time to step back, to be critical not only of others’ work but of our own solutions. We can conduct more thorough research over time that feeds into a larger development of the field rather than address a single issue, process, development or state. Or, we can follow a single issue for years, unraveling the problem and suggesting solutions. While we have deadlines (so many deadlines), we often have a flexibility that allows us to be responsive to new developments and to start new projects simply because we see the need for them (often; not always).

With this focus and approach, we are often in the position of telling NGOs they are missing a few steps or they might be pushing the law or business practices too far. Similarly, we often have to tell businesses and states they are not doing enough.

Academics don’t just have a stake, though; what we bring to the discussion is of value to other stakeholders. Academics are often able to make connections and links that others do not between states and industries, between legal issues and tensions. Realizing these connections can help us understand where we are as a field. Listening to the rights-holders affected by the Samarco mining and dam disaster, I was struck by how similar their struggles are to those of the TEPCO-Fukushima disaster. Seeing this connection has inspired a new train of thought about where we are as a community when it comes to remedies and reparations for large-scale disasters, and what needs to be done differently. Some of that will become a blog, but most of it will sit with me for a few months while I ponder it and gather research. When I’ve done that, what I share will not be some “Ivory Tower” idealism but will be grounded research that addresses the real problems facing the Samarco and Fukushima victims while discussing broader global implications of these experiences for the field as a whole.

While I can easily talk about what I’m currently doing, I am not alone. This is an approach that is common in human rights academia generally and in business and human rights specifically.

I recognize that many of the other stakeholders do not follow academic literature and are not familiar with who is working on what. That can make it difficult for panel organisers to know who to invite. But that is specifically why there needs to be greater inclusion of academics in the Forum. Our work is designed, by and large, to influence these other stakeholders and if they do not know what we are doing or why, then the Forum is exactly the type of place to facilitate that exchange. The connections we make matter not just for academics but also for the field and other stakeholders. It is problematic that academic insight is not being shared – and really is being ignored – at the Forum. This means that other stakeholders do not have the opportunity to learn from, incorporate, or respond to our work.

The scarcity of academic speakers at this year’s Forum also highlights the importance of inter-disciplinary academic networks that can help connect other stakeholders with academics working on pertinent issues. I am fortunate to be a Board Member for the Global Business and Human Rights Scholars Association, a founder of the UK Business and Human Rights Network, and a member of the Teaching Business and Human Rights Forum. These organizations connect academics to one another but in doing so they also provide a way for other stakeholders to identify academics working in their area. I’m also a member of Atlas Women, which helps connect women working in all areas of business and human rights and can help other stakeholders identify women speakers in the area of business and human rights. While they have different means of engagement with their memberships, the leadership of these organizations can be relied upon to help identify relevant speakers.

I will also take this moment to encourage any academics working on business and human rights – from any discipline that touches on these issues, including not just law and business / accounting, but also sociology, psychology, anthropology, geography, computer science, political science, and philosophy (and, I’m sure, others!) – to join the Global Business and Human Rights Scholars Association (it’s free!) so you can connect with other academics and so that we know what you’re working on and can amplify your voice and your research.


Disclaimer: Between the time this post was written and when it was published, I was asked to represent the Essex Business and Human Rights Project on a panel at the Forum. The selection of EBHR to discuss international investment law does not alter the views expressed in this post, which remains unchanged except for typographical corrections and other minor edits. 

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