In my last post, I explained why academics are a distinct stakeholder group at the Forum, and what it is that we add for others. In this post, I am going to demonstrate that academics are disproportionately excluded from cross-stakeholder discussions.

Before I do this, it is worth noting how the panels at the Forum are developed. The UN Working Group develops some panels itself, sometimes collectively (as is often the case with the plenaries) and sometimes with a single member taking the lead in identifying appropriate speakers. Most of the panels, however, are developed by other stakeholders. Panel proposals are sent to the Working Group in April or May and selections are done by August or September. For these panels, the Working Group often asks 1 or 2 (or 6 or 8) other stakeholder groups to develop the panel and to choose the speakers. As such, the concerns I raise in these posts should not be taken exclusively as criticisms of the Working Group (although they do have an important role to play in addressing this issue), but of more systematic issues within the field itself.

To understand the potential for academics to be included at the Forum, it is necessary to reflect on how big of a stakeholder group we are. There are no numbers or division of stakeholders in the 2012 Forum, but there are for the other five years. These numbers make it clear that academics are a significant stakeholder group at the Forum, rivaling businesses and states:

2013: 4th largest stakeholder group, behind businesses by 1 per cent

2014: 3rd, behind civil society and states, but ahead of businesses

2015: 3rd, behind businesses but passing states by 0.5 per cent

2016: 4th, behind states by 2 per cent

2017: 3rd, surpassing states.

Each year, there is a clear intention to ensure the other stakeholder groups are included in the Forum on an equitable basis so that their experiences, views and expertise can be conveyed to the other stakeholders. That has not been true for academia, and the numbers for this year’s Forum indicate it will not be true again.

I realize that the speakers list is incomplete, and any numbers I use are as of 16 November 2018 at 18:00. I suspect the numbers will change slightly before the start of the Forum, but unless there is a massive boom in academic speakers coming, what I say here will still be relevant on 28 November.

There are 100 panels, of which 27 are ‘snapshots’ (an important point I’ll address shortly) and there are 311 known speakers. Of those 311 speakers, 21 are academics, but only 20 are speaking in their academic capacity. As this affects all the numbers and discussions going forward, let me explain that 21st speaker. There are two additional academics serving as moderators (which I do not include as speakers for reasons I detailed last year).

To identify academics on the speakers list, I searched for the following terms: ‘University’, ‘School’, ‘Institute’, ‘Academy’, ‘Department’, ‘Professor’, and ‘Lecturer’. This method brought up Jane Nelson, who is identified as the Director of the Corporate Responsibility Initiative at Harvard’s Kennedy School. But Jane is speaking in her capacity as a Board Member for Newmont Mining on a panel titled, ‘Driving human rights performance from the top in the mining sector – the role of the board and investors.’ It should be noted that she is the Board in that title. That panel includes the CEO of the International Council on Mining & Metals, two leaders of institutional investors (Hermes Asset Management and the Swedish National Pension Funds) and Jane Nelson. While I have no doubt she will bring academic knowledge to her talk, she’s not been asked to speak in her academic role. She’s serving a different stakeholder group: she’s there for her role in a business. As such, she is not included in the academic numbers going forward.

That leaves us with 20 academics, including Lise Smit from the British Institute for International and Comparative Law, which is not strictly an academic institution but is a research institute so I’m including it. This means academics make up 6.4 per cent of the known and identified speakers.

*There are two more people who ‘ping’ as having the right terms in their title, but these appear to be students who won a youth competition in Thailand and not academics.

Of those 20, 12 are speaking only on ‘snapshot’ panels. This matters. The 27 snapshot panels are 15-minute, stand-alone presentations, unlike the 73 panels that involve a dialogue between stakeholders and generally run for 90 minutes. The snapshots are intended to convey information, and have an important role to play in the Forum, but by their nature and timing, they don’t really allow for a discussion or debate or an exchange of views between stakeholders. They are isolated and disconnected from the presentations that go before and after them, with each snapshot addressing a new issue.

With 60 per cent of the academic speakers making only snapshot presentations, it is clear that academic knowledge is not being appropriately integrated into the design of the Forum. We are not being given a chance to ensure that the other stakeholders really hear us and can respond to us in a setting that suggests academic voices are valued.

The seclusion to snapshots is actually worse than it appears. There is one academic who is giving both a snapshot presentation and speaking on a panel. This means there are actually 13 academics doing snapshot presentations, but of those, 8 of them are sharing a 15-minute slot with another academic. So while there are 13 academics speaking in the 27 slots, they are actually only speaking on 8 snapshot panels. That means that of the 405 minutes of ‘snapshot’ time, academics will occupy the space for 120 minutes, or 30 per cent.

That will be the highlight of our inclusion.

There are only 4-8 academic speakers on panels that are designed to ensure dialogue and that present a sustained and coherent discussion of the issues. That’s 6.4 per cent of the identified and known speakers for the Forum. And they are speaking on 5 such panels, so only around 4 per cent of the panels.

Those numbers are simply not reflective of our presence at the Forum, of our work in the field, or of our potential to contribute to the various discussions.

It gets worse when you consider that of the 20 academics identified, only 2 are based outside the ‘Western Europe and Other Group’. Both are based in Asia. I shouldn’t have to say this, but I will: academia is not an experience exclusive to Western Europe.

One might argue that with an entire Working Group of academics, this is not actually a problem. But our (still, consistently, male-dominated) UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights is not the audience for panel presentations or snapshot presentations (I’ll return to the male dominance of the WG shortly). The audience for panels and presentations are other stakeholders whom we need to respond to through our research or whose research, initiatives, problems and ideas can be aided by academic research. Speaking provides an opportunity for stakeholders to self-identify to us that their work could be beneficial to, or benefit from, ours. In short: we need to speak to the same audience and for the same purpose as other stakeholders.

And it’s sad because what academics know and have to say on these issues need to be heard by other stakeholders. The potential to include academics is clear.

There’s a panel on human rights in the tourism sector with five businesses or industry representatives, two civil society representatives and no academic. How about Stroma Cole? Another panel is interrogating the role for business in public policy, with nothing but business sector or business-led representatives. No academics or civil society. It would have been beneficial to include someone like Sarah Joseph or Erika George or Justine Nolan or Jernej Letnar Černič or Humberto Cantú Rivera.

There’s a panel on investigating the relationship between business practices and outcomes that will apparently be made up of ‘practitioners’ but won’t include any academic who specializes in indicators. What about James Harrison or Paul Hunt, who has not only helped develop numerous human rights indicators but was also the first UN Special Rapporteur to do a ‘country’ visit to a pharmaceutical company?

The panel on sports could have included Daniela Heerdt. The panel on taxation, Shane Darcy. Human rights due diligence across supply chains could have included the talented Anil Yilmaz-Vastardis. The panel on child rights could have included Joanna Kyriakakis, Madhulika Sahoo, Isabel Mota Borges, or Alina Miamingi. The panel on ‘essential elements’ for due diligence could include Duan Yuefang or Josua Loots.

I’m not even going to pretend to hope that the currently unidentified panellists on ‘engaging communities in assessing and addressing impacts’ includes one of our amazing anthropologists or sociologists who do this work – someone like Gwen Burnyeat – or that the panel on how investors can ‘drive more or better human rights due diligence’ will include someone like Danny Bradlow. Unfortunately, this means that the latter panel is likely to again treat investors’ responsibilities as CSR and good practice despite the fact that many investors are institutional and have responsibilities under the UNGPs.

There is a dearth of academic expertise at the Forum this year. I realize more will come as the month continues, but I also know some of that will be for the 8am on a Monday panel ‘Academic Friends of the UNGP.’ This is simply another panel that isolates academic expertise rather than integrates into a larger discussion.

It is simply inappropriate for a stakeholder group as large as academia to be sectioned off and given a single panel and some snapshot presentations without more opportunities to address the serious and significant issues that plague an area in which we are experts. It undermines the value of the Forum for all stakeholder groups.


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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