Sophia Lin is a Legal and Policy Associate at ICAR, a coalition of human rights groups focused on corporate accountability. The organization researches, advocates and campaigns for legal frameworks to promote accountability as well as push governments to create and enforce rules over corporations that promote human rights and reduce inequality. Prior to ICAR, Sophia worked for organizations such as the New America Foundation and Freedom House. This narrative is based off an interview conducted by Celia Garrett, Kenan’s Pathways of Change Intern placed at ICAR, at the organization’s office in Washington, D.C.
Celia Garrett: Where did you grow up? What were your early years like?
Sophia Lin: I grew up in Taipei, Taiwan. My parents are both professors, and throughout my education and upbringing they were always stressing that the most important thing in life is to make sure that you’re contributing to the world or society – the people around you. I always know I have never been interested in making money but rather was always thinking how do I make an impact in the world.
CG: What is your educational background?
SL: I went to college in Taiwan at the National Taiwan University where my major was western literature. That was interesting in a sense that it taught me to be more empathetic. Through literature, you understand people’s experiences and emotions, but I also realized that I wasn’t interested in looking at emotions and the philosophical exploration of literary works and that I want to do something that has more tangible impacts to the people around us. I then worked at the Red Cross after college in Taiwan and I saw the power of non-profit organizations in providing services to communities and to people who are affected by natural disasters. But I also saw that to be able to affect change on the larger scale, we not only need people who provide services but we also need people who will propel change on the larger scale in terms of policy and law so that’s why I went to law school. I got my JD from American University in Washington D.C.
CG: What did your path to business and human rights, and your path within it, look like?
SL: I explored a bit doing different things. I went to law school knowing I want to do human rights because of my work at the Red Cross, but I wasn’t sure which issues within the human rights field I was interested in.
I was very interested in litigation – so I interned at an organization called the International Rights Advocates, which brings lawsuits against companies for human rights related offenses. It was very interesting in their approach but we were always fighting a very steep, up-hill battle – even when the facts were strong and the law on our side, we would still lose on technical grounds.
Because of the challenges with litigation, I wanted to explore other approaches in driving change. I interned at a number of policy advocacy organizations, including the New America Foundation, where I worker on internet governance and internet freedom issues, as well as sanctions and export control mechanisms in relation to internet technology.
I think at this point I became aware of my deep interest in how business get involved and their impact on human rights, and realized they play a huge role in how the world works. They have impact on every person in various ways. I didn’t realize that I was following this path – from one organization to another was not for this one reason that I wanted to business and human rights, but everything links up.
CG: What does your work at ICAR entail? What does your day to day look like?
SL: We work on different issues and work streams that all use different leverages that governments have to promote better respect for human rights and ensure accountability. Our approach or our theory of change is to use the power of civil society groups or a coalition of civil society organizations to push for change, so that means we have a lot of collaboration with other civil society organizations. We also do a lot of engagement with policy makers – we work on how to spot new issues and put new issues on the map. That means my day to day entails a lot of communications and collaborations with other civil society partners – organizing meetings, collaborating on different aspects of a project, strategy building with other groups on how to approach and push the government. I do a lot of research as well to identify new issues, new arguments and new approaches to a particular issue. I do a lot of engagement with government policy makers to get their buy in on various initiatives and use them as agents to push for change.
CG: What are the most rewarding and challenging parts of your current work?
SL: The most rewarding part is that you see a lot of people working on the same issue because of this collaborative approach that we take, and its very rewarding to see that you’re not alone – there exists a group of other people who agree with you and are willing to work with you on these issues. The most challenging part is that you cannot see the impact immediately, especially because we engage on the policy level so even if the policy is implemented, you cannot necessarily see immediately how it impacts people on the ground. It’s hard to push for change on the policy level – to always have to examine what exactly is the goal and how do you define success with those goals.
CG: In what ways has your work at ICAR changed your views about business and human rights?
SL: From the outside you see a lot of talk on business and human rights from the perspective of corporate social responsibility (CSR), which is essentially corporate philanthropy. Working at ICAR, you see the corporate accountability approach. You can do all the CSR programs, but the law is law and policy makers are supposed to implement the law. I didn’t realize how powerful and important that accountability and exercising of regulatory power on the government side is to change behaviors. If the government doesn’t enforce the law you will almost never get companies to do what they are supposed to do. Another thing I realize is that just because there’s a law on the books doesn’t mean the enforcement will follow. At first if you pass a law you might get companies a little scared but if the government doesn’t enforce it; it can be the same as if there’s no law. Enforcement is especially an issue for human rights oriented laws and polices.
CG: What skills have helped you the most to succeed in the business and human rights field?
SL: Having a critical mind and not being complacent of what we have done but always questioning if we can do more. There’s a lot of talk of CSR – being able to differentiate what is the more effective approach and what is not, I think that’s important. It’s also important to have a good understanding – an in depth understanding – of the issue, especially when you engage with policy makers who know exactly what the law does and how the implementation is being affected. Being able to engage with them on a detailed level is how you can get them to move a little.
CG: Who or what organizations do you look to as leaders in the business and human rights community?
SL: ICAR is definitely a thought leader in terms of new issues. It depends on issues: Global Witness is a big organization on corruption and in the extractive sector, Human Rights First does a lot of trafficking work and spearheaded many trafficking regulations. The Enough Project is very innovative in terms of using different financial and sanctions tools to put pressure on human rights violators. The fact that they have investigative team within their organization is very innovative – usually organizations don’t have the capacity to have former government investigators to do these kinds of criminal investigations and they operate in a smart manner and in a distinct niche.
CG: What do you see as the biggest opportunities in the field, what contributions are most needed?
SL: Trade issues are big – there’s so much talk about it, and then all these political elections and shifts have put trade on the agenda. There are a lot of people looking at trade right now, recognizing that the current trade framework doesn’t work for everyone so something needs to be changed. There is going to be a lot of discussion on trade, and opportunity on how to shift the dynamic of trade and investment
CG: What kind of future do you see business and human rights moving toward?
SL: More regulations. You see France and the Netherlands, for example, publishing not just voluntary initiatives but civil or criminal law on supply chain issues. Because of the new trade agenda, there’s more enforcement or examination of forced labor products and how it affects American labor. We can start a discussion of how we enforce trade law to make sure labor standards abroad are higher so that workers in western countries don’t have compete. You’ll see more enforcement of trade law. But at the same time there seems to be a lot more corruption in public space, standards and law not mattering anymore, so I’m not entirely hopeful about what is going to happen.