Professor Seck and I were privileged to attend the U.N. Forum on Business and Human Rights. Professor Seck has produced an important essay relating to the work of the United Nations in strengthening and deepening its Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights in an area that lamentably could profit from greater attention. She notes: "While education of professionals within the business and legal community is clearly crucial, the role of universities in implementation has not received similar attention. In this light, it is interesting to see the emergence of a global educational initiative at the United Nations, called United Nations Academic Impact" and wonders "whether all universities have a responsibility to educate for implementation of international human rights law and the UNGPs." I agree (see, e.g., here).
The essay, The Role of University Education in Implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, follows.
The Role of University Education in Implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights
By Sara L Seck, Associate Professor, Western Law firstname.lastname@example.org
Discussion of strategies for the implementation of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights often highlight the importance of education. While education of professionals within the business and legal community is clearly crucial, the role of universities in implementation has not received similar attention. In this light, it is interesting to see the emergence of a global educational initiative at the United Nations, called United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI), which was launched in 2010. UNAI describes itself as a “global initiative that aligns institutions of higher education with the United Nations in furthering the realization of the purposes and mandate of the Organization through activities and research in a shared culture of intellectual social responsibility.” Membership is open to all higher education degree granting institutions as well as those with substantive research responsibilities. Signatories commit to supporting and advancing ten basic principles:
1. A commitment to the principles inherent in the United Nations Charter as values that education seeks to promote and help fulfil;While it is obvious that Principle 2, a commitment to human rights, is of importance in relation to teaching for implementation of the UNGPs, human rights values clearly infuse many of the other principles.
2. A commitment to human rights, among them freedom of inquiry, opinion, and speech;
3. A commitment to educational opportunity for all people regardless of gender, race, religion or ethnicity;
4. A commitment to the opportunity for every interested individual to acquire the skills and knowledge necessary for the pursuit of higher education;
5. A commitment to building capacity in higher education systems across the world;
6. A commitment to encouraging global citizenship through education;
7. A commitment to advancing peace and conflict resolution through education;
8. A commitment to addressing issues of poverty through education;
9. A commitment to promoting sustainability through education;
10. A commitment to promoting inter-cultural dialogue and understanding, and the “unlearning” of intolerance, through education.
Participation in UNAI is free, and expectations for participants at this point are minimal. Specifically, participants commit to furthering policies and programmes within their own institutions that “reflect adherence to the principles.” (UNAI “Expectations”) These include undertaking “one new activity each year” that addresses “at least one of the basic principles” and prominently placing the details of the activity and its relationship to UNAI on the institution’s website or in printed publications. Members can also submit activities reports to UNAI to be profiled on the UNAI website. As of October 2015, there were approximately 1000 educational institutions from around the world participating in UNAI (UNAI “Membership List October 2015”). However, while the list includes many well known universities with law and business schools, many institutions are absent, including Harvard University.
While the obligations imposed on participants in UNAI are obviously minimal – and there appears to be a lack of “enforcement mechanism” to ensure or even encourage compliance – UNAI appears modeled upon the UN Global Compact. Though some criticize the Global Compact due to it voluntary nature and raise concerns over “blue-wash,” those who see its mission as distinct from “corporate accountability” understand that it may play a distinct yet valuable role as a learning network designed to facilitate the building of shared understandings. A similar mechanism for universities might, over time, also serve a useful purpose, given the obvious challenges of building shared understandings between educational institutions in very different country contexts with very different histories.
A second more developed and better known initiative of interest is United Nations PRME – the Principles of Responsible Management Education. (UN PRME). Launched in 2007, the development of UN PRME was the result of recommendations by academic stakeholders of the UN Global Compact. UN PRME requires signatory academic institutions to progressively implement 6 principles and report on progress to stakeholders and share practices with other academic institutions. (UN PRME “Principles”) The six principles address purpose, values, method, research, partnership and dialogue, and are infused with references to sustainability and social responsibility. For example, Principle 1 outlines a commitment to developing “the capabilities of students to be future generators of sustainable value for business and society” and to working towards “an inclusive and sustainable global economy”. Principle 2 commits to the incorporation into “academic activities and curricula [of] the values of global social responsibility as portrayed in international initiatives such as the United Nations Global Compact.” The Global Compact includes Principles specifically addressed to human rights, and while the UN PRME principles do not specifically reference human rights, there is some evidence that it figures into at least some of the activities of UN PRME (see UN PRME “Human Rights”). More than 600 business schools and management academic institutions from around the world are signatories to UN PRME (UN PRME “Signatories”).
To date there does not appear to be a comparable United Nations initiative to UN PRME for law schools, although some universities that have signed up to UN PRME may also have a law school, or offer legal studies within a business or management studies program. The importance of human rights education is clearly of concern to the UN Human Rights Council (see OHCHR “The Right to Human Rights Education”). For the purpose of implementation of the UN Guiding Principles, it is also crucially important that those who receive education about international human rights law are not solely those who are enrolled in international law or human rights specialty courses, whether in law, political science, global studies, or any other programs. My unverified impression in Canada is that while some law schools offer mandatory courses in public international or transnational law, no law school requires all students to study international human rights law. Some law schools do mandate the study of business law, however. For implementation of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, education in both business law and international human rights law is clearly essential. Specialty courses have emerged to fill this void, but these are generally seminar courses into which a small number of students self-select.
An unanswered question that flows from the above musings is whether all universities have a responsibility to educate for implementation of international human rights law and the UNGPs, and if so, what that might mean in practice generally speaking, and specifically for law schools. Are universities “states” or “businesses,” or are they distinct organs of society with a unique set of duties and responsibilities, including perhaps most importantly implementation of the right to education?