Business and Human Rights Scholarship: Expanding an Interdisciplinary and International Field

On September 14-15, the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights hosted the fourth annual Business and Human Rights Scholars conference, co-organized with the Global Business and Human Right Scholars’ Association. The meeting brought together more than 40 academics from all over the world, including from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Indonesia, Nepal, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Brazil, Mexico, and Australia.  The conference enables academics to discuss research-in-progress and receive and provide valuable feedback.

 2018 Participants

2018 Participants

The increasing interest and involvement of business and human rights (BHR) academics in this conference indicates the ascendance of the BHR movement more generally. In recent years, with the increasing number of BHR courses being offered and a growing network of BHR teachers who come together in the Teaching BHR Forum, the establishment of the Business and Human Rights Journal, and the development of the nascent BHR network of business schools (holding its second annual meeting this year on the back of the UN Forum on BHR), BHR can no longer be classified as a niche research and teaching stream. This expansion of the field was also reflected in the wide array of research topics that were presented.

 Lerato Thesiko presenting her research at the 2018 BHR Scholars Conference

Lerato Thesiko presenting her research at the 2018 BHR Scholars Conference

Presentations at the conference focused on three main themes: preventing, managing, and measuring BHR; human rights in global supply chains and specific industry settings; and conceptual approaches to BHR. Both the research presented, and the approaches taken to conduct that research varied widely and took on topics as diverse as specific regional, national, feminist, and sectoral approaches to advancing BHR; analysis of the new disclosure laws that are emerging; research on how climate change affects human rights; methodological discussions about how to measure and cost corporate human rights impact; assessments of the efficacy of remedies; and conversations about where the movement itself is heading.

The lively interaction between business and legal scholars at the conference revealed the importance of continuing to develop this field with a truly inter-disciplinary approach. At this year’s conference, about half of the academics had a non-legal background. For research in this field to have impact, it must reach beyond the traditional silos of law, business ethics, management, and governance or CSR to incorporate a multiplicity of viewpoints.

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While the interdisciplinary nature of the field is increasing, the conference (and BHR academic scholarship more generally) would greatly benefit from the participation of more scholars from the global south.  Attendance of such scholars at workshops like this and the UN Forum held in Geneva requires financial support to assist the scholars to attend. Raising funds to promote interdisciplinary and international scholarship ought to be a priority for the Global Business and Human Rights Scholars’ Association in the years to come.

For the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, BHR scholarship is the foundation for what we do and links directly to the practical implementation of BHR. Research into how business operates in specific industry settings helps us to better understand how current business models systematically affect human rights. From these research insights, we derive practical recommendations for companies and policy advice, and we develop teaching resources to guide future business leaders. BHR scholarship and teaching shapes how future managers deal with human rights challenges, and it is the responsibility of all academic disciplines to prepare them for a more sustainable future.