Kenan’s Human Rights Center unveils database to track collaborative initiatives on business and human rights

The Duke Human Rights Center at the Kenan Institute for Ethics has helped launch a new database that tracks multi-stakeholder initiatives, voluntary initiatives that involve some form of collaboration between governments, NGOs, and private companies, aimed at improving businesses’ treatment of, and respect for, human rights.

The goal of the project is to increase public understanding of an emerging source of international standards for responsible business and government conduct. It currently features 45 different standard-setting multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) that address a range of human rights, governance, and environmental issues in over 170 countries on six continents. The reach of these organizations across public and private sectors has great potential to shape governance and the standards to which companies are held.

MSIs in the database engage with over 50 national governments and regulate over 9,000 companies – including Fortune Global 500 businesses with combined annual revenues of more than $5.4 trillion dollars.

“These voluntary initiatives are frequently pointed to as an innovative solution to states’ inability or unwillingness to regulate the human rights practices of businesses,” said Suzanne Katzenstein, Research Scholar and Project Director at the Duke Human Rights Center at the Kenan Institute for Ethics. “But we know remarkably little about them, including how many there are, which industries they focus on, which actors have a voice in MSI decision-making, and which mechanisms, if any, the initiatives include to hold companies accountable. The goal of this new database is to offer a way to answer these questions.”

As a follow-up to this new database, a report analyzing findings will be released in late July.

The data was collected by a Kenan service-learning class, Business and Human Rights Advocacy Lab, in the spring of 2015 and 2016. The 2015 class worked on piloting the research methodology and the 2016 class implemented the final methodology to collect the data.  Students also conducted short case studies on the MSIs they researched.

“We were able to directly apply the theories and arguments we considered in the foundational weeks of the course to real-life, tangible issues facing MSI Integrity and other NGOs across the globe,” said Molly Walker, a 2016 Duke graduate who participated in Kenan’s research. “Not only did this exercise clarify any questions we may have had about the course material, but it also offered us the opportunity to see how academia and research intersect with grassroots efforts.”

The MSI Database presents key data points on transnational standard-setting MSIs and sets out information regarding:

  • Industries in which MSIs operate
  • Participation of different stakeholder groups in MSI governance
  • Involvement of affected communities
  • Whether MSIs reference international human rights or environmental law
  • Whether MSIs require independent evaluations of members
  • Whether MSIs require publicly available reports of evaluations
  • Whether MSIs provide a mechanism for external complaints
  • Whether MSIs have authority to sanction members

These new efforts are part of a broader collaboration performed by Kenan’s Duke Human Rights Center, which included a May 2016 workshop, “MSIs, Institutional Design, and Institutional Efficacy,” that brought together scholars from across the country and England.

The new MSI database is now available and includes information about the scope, governance, and operation of transnational standard-setting MSIs. The collaborative effort is a partnership between the Kenan Institute for Ethics, MSI Integrity, with pro bono support from the law firm Miller & Chevalier.