We affect people we will never meet every day

When you hear the phrase “human rights NGO,” what comes to mind?  If you asked me that six months ago, I would have imagined groups collecting donations for aid and relief or running poignant PR campaigns publicizing some atrocity and shaming the people responsible. I would not have imagined a nonprofit consultancy that works almost exclusively with multinational corporations.

Photo by Joël de Vriend on Unsplash

Four weeks ago, I began working in the New York office of BSR, a nonprofit membership organization and sustainability consultancy that helps companies integrate human rights and sustainability into their operations by providing consulting services and bringing together collaborative initiatives in which businesses can share best practices to solve common problems. Their unique model allows them to gain the trust of and affect the actions of some of the world’s most influential companies.

Even though I have taken classes on human rights before, BSR’s theory of change  was not one a to which I had been exposed. My experience with academia had focused on policy and advocacy, which are certainly important. I thought of affecting change as naming, shaming, boycotting, and lobbying. This work is important, but at BSR, the mindset is different. We believe that if we want to change a company’s behavior, we need to work with them. 

This summer, I am focusing on BSR’s human rights projects. My responsibilities include supporting multi-company collaborative initiatives on subject areas like promoting LGBTI equality worldwide and combatting human trafficking in supply chains. These opportunities allow me to both learn more about strategies to promote human rights and give me an appreciation for the difficulties of operating in a myriad of different legal and cultural environments.

BSR bases its human rights practice off the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Created in 2011, this document outlines the responsibilities of companies to respect human rights in all their operations and provide remedy if they violate these rights. The Guiding Principles in turn are based on international declarations and treaties like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Even if these documents lack enforcement mechanisms and are more of a voluntary framework than binding international law, having these internationally agreed-upon set of values is essential in order to work globally.

Perhaps the most important thing BSR does is its human rights impact assessments. When a company wants to expand into a new market or evaluate some of its existing operations, they will contract BSR to perform a holistic review of how their supply chain and their own operations could negatively impact human rights and what opportunities the company has to use its platform to support human rights. This complex process deserves its own blog post, which I am sure I will do soon.

A colleague recently told me that the first thing anyone needs to know about human rights is that they are numerous. In this interconnected world, we affect people we will never meet every day. My time at BSR has shown me just how ubiquitous  

Noah McThenia, placed with Business for Social Responsibility, is a rising junior from Gainesville, Florida. He is majoring in Public Policy, with a minor in Classical Civilizations and a certificate in Ethics and Society. He is passionate about the use of public and private institutions to ensure universal enjoyment of human rights. He works with Kenan’s Citizenship Lab and the Duke Cyber Club.

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