Emerging research on business and human rights – reflections on the first Business and Human Rights Young Researchers Summit

Business and Human Rights (BHR) challenges are among the most complex but least studied ad understood business challenges of the 21st century. However, BHR as an academic discipline is starting to take shape. Just last week a group of emerging scholars met in St Gallen, Switzerland, to discuss how to address the most pressing issues in this field.

This first “BHR Young Researchers Summit”, co-organized by the Institute of Business Ethics at the University of St Gallen, the Business and Human Rights Journal, and our Center for Business and Human Rights at NYU, brought together 13 PhD researchers from five continents. Their work covers a spectrum of ambitious research topics including projects that aim to re-frame the debate around the right to health, community conflict with the mining industry, or land grabbing in the food sector; projects that address the long-standing but unresolved question of how to establish labor rights in global supply chains; as well as projects that assess how a mix of public and private actors could regulate corporate human rights behavior through Public Private Partnerships,  multi-stakeholder initiatives, or innovative legal provisions.

The participants were selected from over 40 applicants with interdisciplinary backgrounds. The objective of the Summit was to advance their research projects and form a network of emerging scholars in the field. 


After managing the selection process of applicants and two workshop days, the following three observations stand out:

 

• BHR research needs to be interdisciplinary
BHR is still a field dominated by legal scholars. Out of over 40 applications for the Summit, less than five research abstracts had an explicit management focus. Most applicants had a law background and their projects focused on law extensions to regulate human rights. As we conceptualized the program, we paired projects with a specific law focus with projects that analyze the same issues from a different social science perspective. This concept proved to be valuable in the discussions, which showed that neither discipline provides a silver bullet for the regulation of the corporate human rights conduct, and therefore interdisciplinary research is a necessity in this field. 

• BHR research profits from an international research perspective
At the Summit, natives from emerging economies provided research perspectives that are often less represented in the international BHR discourse. International research exchanges are still rare but important for understanding the challenges in home and host states, or from a headquarters as well as a supplier perspective.

• Emerging scholars are keen to bridge the gap between BHR theory and practice
Many projects that were presented at the Summit not only provided accurate descriptions of current legal practices and business operations but also developed new legal language, corporate guidelines, or policy recommendations that could improve human rights practice. The aspiration to transform a sometimes rather academic discourse into actionable recommendations was particularly remarkable from this group of young scholars. Yet, the development of feasible solutions and alternatives to existing practice (e.g. to social auditing in supply chains) was also the most difficult part of most research projects. More work needs to go into this visionary aspect of the BHR field to further advance these research projects as well as human rights practice.

 

With these bright minds dedicating their work to BHR, the future of BHR holds a lot of promise. We are looking forward to hearing more from these scholars and our Center is committed to supporting events for emerging scholars in the years to come.