07 May 2008
Harvard Business School Hosts Business and Human Rights Conference
Gathering Includes Academics, Business Leaders, and Government Officials
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BOSTON — How do, and how should, business managers address human rights issues within their organizations' operations and supply chains? A recent conference organized by Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Michael Toffel and the U.S. Network of the United Nations Global Compact tackled these questions with a day-long series of panels and speeches.

The conference brought together senior managers of companies from across the United States with thought leaders from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), scholars from Harvard University, and representatives from the United Nations.

Topics of the Business Human Rights Conference included:

  • Understanding business risks regarding human rights
  • Setting policies and addressing stakeholder expectations
  • Monitoring and reporting progress.

The opening keynote speech was delivered by Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland and now President of Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative. Besides providing a brief overview of the global human rights landscape, she commented on how the private sector can make a difference in promoting greater respect for human rights and described what lessons must be learned to ensure the success of future efforts.

"It seems clear that demands on companies to demonstrate responsible behavior will only increase in the years to come," said Robinson. "I believe business managers who view human rights and other social issues as just philanthropy, or as an afterthought, an extra, will face a growing number of risks. But I am hopeful that we will increasingly see the emergence of another kind of manager - one who is able to incorporate human rights and other ethical issues into her decision making. That will not only be good for business, but it will also be a powerful force in realizing all human rights for all."

A full transcript of Robinson's speech can be found here: http://www.hbs.edu/units/tom/conferences/docs/Robinson_UNGC_HBS.pdf

The day's second keynote address, "The Evolving International Agenda," was delivered by Professor John Ruggie of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and a special representative of the UN Secretary-General on business and human rights. "Business is the major source of investment and job creation, and markets can be highly efficient means for allocating scarce resources," said Ruggie. "They constitute powerful forces capable of generating economic growth, reducing poverty, and increasing demand for the rule of law, thereby contributing to the realization of a broad spectrum of human rights. But markets work optimally only if they are embedded within rules, customs and institutions. Markets themselves require these to survive and thrive, while society needs them to manage the adverse effects of market dynamics and produce the public goods that markets undersupply. Indeed, history teaches us that markets pose the greatest risks - to society and business itself - when their scope and power far exceed the reach of the institutional underpinnings that allow them to function smoothly and ensure their political sustainability. This is such a time and escalating charges of corporate-related human rights abuses are the canary in the coal mine, signaling that all is not well."

HBS Professor of Management Practice Allen Grossman taught a case study to the group focusing on human rights in supply chains. The case centered on the Swiss mail-order company Charles Veillon S.A. as it considered whether to work with a human rights organization to monitor the labor practices of its suppliers.

About Harvard Business School

Founded in 1908 as part of Harvard University, Harvard Business School is located on a 40-acre campus in Boston. Its faculty of more than 200 offers full-time​ programs leading to the MBA and doctoral degrees, as well as more than 80 open enrollment Executive Education programs and more than 60 custom programs. For more than a century, HBS faculty have drawn on their research, their experience in working with organizations worldwide, and their passion for teaching to educate leaders who have shaped the practice of business and entrepreneurship around the globe.​​​​