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“Businesses are both saints and sinners. Give me an issue of current political, social and environmental significance and I’ll show you how the private sector is implicated, both in the problem and in the solution to it.”

For Professor Ken McPhail, founder of the Business & Human Rights Catalyst at Alliance MBS, history is littered with examples of businesses that have done the wrong thing, whether that be exploiting minerals and natural resources, or whether exploiting people.

Today, a burning issue remains the responsibility of high street names and big brands to honour their social responsibility commitments. “Often it is not intentional, but they can get caught up in unethical behaviour because supply chains are so complex and extensive and have become very difficult things to manage.”

Role of business

With half of the largest 100 economies in the world not states but private companies, there is a growing clamour as to what these big global companies and brands should be doing to set the new rules of the globalisation road.

As Prof McPhail adds: “The role of business plays a big role in not only influencing government behaviour, but in determining an individual’s lived experience of human rights too.”

Guiding principles

The whole subject area of business and human rights has grown significantly since the United Nations formally endorsed the ‘Guiding Principles’ in 2011.
The Principles are based on three key pillars:

  • protect, re-affirming that nation states are the primary duty-bearers under international human rights law;
  • respect, stipulating that corporations have a responsibility to respect rights that is independent of the state's obligations;
  • remedy, stressing the need for both judicial and non-judicial access to remedy where rights have been violated.

Role of business schools

Prof McPhail says in this context the big responsibility of business schools is to ensure that graduates are ready for the challenges that they will face.

“Many of our graduates will be leaders, many of them will be CEOs, and many of them will start their own businesses as entrepreneurs. They will not only want to do good, but be good.

“Business schools have a fundamental role to play in developing the next generation of leaders who have the capacity to understand the new challenges that are being levelled at corporations, big and small. We live in a completely different world now with different kinds of expectations from workers, consumers, the international environment and, importantly, investors.

“What we need to do is enable students to see that their businesses can be a force for good, to empower them to go and develop the next generation of social enterprises that have major social impacts but which are also financially sustainable. It is about having an impact way beyond the bottom line, having an impact on people’s lives.”

Manchester tradition

Prof McPhail adds that the city of Manchester has a huge tradition in being radical and is well-placed to address these subjects. “You can see the Manchester spirit in the women’s rights movement, the suffragettes, in its history of labour movements, and in relation to the cooperative movement.

“That spirit also seeps into the institution of The University of Manchester as well, and strikes to the heart of the core purpose of universities as being society’s critical conscience where ideas can be converted into action.”

Backed by the Lord Alliance Foundation, Alliance MBS has established one of the world’s first business and human rights networks at a business school.
The network defines the challenges of business to respect human rights; engages key actors in informed and action-oriented discussion; informs the academic, social and political debate; and helps shape future policy and corporate practice.

Key themes being explored by the network include: modern-day slavery; the refugee crisis; gender equality in global value chains; ICT-related rights; and investment.

Watch below as Ken McPhail describes the pioneering research into business and human rights: