Business and Human Rights Young Researchers Summit 2022

Let's get critical: Emerging criticism of a growing field

Hiruni Alwishewa (Geneva Graduate Institute) & Debadatta Bose (University of Amsterdam)


In the late rainy summer, as thousands of football fans descended on the charming Swiss city of St. Gallen to watch the Arsenal-Zurich match, thirteen young researchers came together to meet, present, and discuss emerging and novel topics on BHR at the Business and Human Rights Young Researchers Summit. The Summit acts as a tiny dot that shines across the beautiful dark sky, as part of a grand constellation of ideas across time. In its 7th iteration, the 2022 Summit once again provided a collegial forum for a cohort of young researchers from distant locations (coming from as far as Australia) and range of academic fields (from law to philosophy to business ethics), bringing with them equally diverse perspectives and ideas about the new and anticipated challenges BHR faces.

As in previous years, the Summit highlighted the importance of identifying emerging trends in BHR scholarship and moulding the BHR research agenda. In particular, three themes emerged from the work of 2022 cohort:

1. Critical Approaches – While the core strengths of business and human rights scholarship were visible throughout all presentations, there was as much methodological diversity (empirical and theoretical/analytical) as much as disciplinary diversity from management, law and others. One running theme of the summit was the focus on critical approaches or projects with critical components. That the problem business and human rights addresses is not merely a managerial or legal one but also a colonial one that is inseparable from other conditions was notably highlighted throughout the presentations and discussions. There were more specific papers addressing colonial reparations, a Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL) study on human rights due diligence law, and the like. This increasing critical focus appears to be the result of the mainstreaming or maturity the BHR field is moving towards. It also signifies the arrival of the necessity for critical reflection on BHR, in both its conceptualisation and application in practice.

2. Global South – The journey of critique is far from over – as the TWAIL approach points out – knowledge production privileges the Global North who then prescribe laws and solutions for the Global South. While this conference was quite diverse as regards nationality, one could not help but notice amidst all these critical discussions that it was almost exclusively attended by those in institutions in the Global North. Yet, the hopeful part is that the research was not North-centric; quite the contrary. For example, empirical research on the gig economy workers was done in India; research on the surrogacy market utilised data from Global South countries; more empirical research from Bangladesh was presented as regards the garment industry. The underscoring of supply chain management as a means for outsourcing human rights issues (shifting the onus of responsibility from the Global North multinationals to the Global South suppliers) and the potential for law to take agency from bottom-up movements originating in the Global South further indicates a shifting perspective and attention in the BHR movement.

3. Spotlight on Businesses – Another interesting observation of note was that the focus of nearly all topics on businesses and not states, with few exceptions. This focus on business was tackled from all aspects, including thematic ones like armed conflict and fundamental questions of theories of justice and legal orders. The spotlighting of businesses considered not only their roles in protecting human rights and preventing risks to them, but also elucidated the growing onus on businesses to enact comprehensive and effective policies and to undertake proactive actions minimising negative human rights impacts. The expansion of the public-private continuum, as studies, for instance, on social media highlighted, underscores the expectations of businesses to engage with human rights due diligence, but also drew attention to the problems with allowing companies, in effect, to engage in self-regulation, as was noted in discussions about the involvement of stakeholders in impact assessments. Indeed, other examples such as the incorporation of human rights due diligence in AI algorithms indicate that there continues to be a need for regulatory oversight by states to ensure the policies and measures undertaken by businesses do not exacerbate other human rights concerns.

With two full days of collaborating and conversing during panels and over refreshments, the Summit provided an outstanding opportunity for the group to share views and insights while also fostering a sense of community in the growing field of BHR. Though the weather cleared up briefly but not long enough to enjoy the spectacular views from the summit of the Säntis, the conference capped off with a tranquil weekend exploring the UNESCO World Heritage listed Abbey of Saint Gall, a medieval monastic library, among other St. Galler sights and delights such as bibers and bratwursts.