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The business of human rights

Supreme Court law panellists

Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, states have an obligation to protect human rights, companies have a responsibility to respect human rights and there should be access to remedies for victims. But in our increasingly complex world, how does human rights and corporate law shape what companies do – or don’t do – on the ground? 

Earlier this month, we hosted an exclusive panel session at the Supreme Court in London, joined by alumni guests and final-year Law students as University and alumni experts discussed the latest developments in human rights and corporate law. The session was chaired by the Rt. Hon. Sir Rabinder Singh, a Lord Justice of Appeal and Honorary Professor at the University of Nottingham. Opening the discussion, Lord Justice Singh raised thoughts for the panellists to consider throughout the debate, particularly the extent to which the state is able to legislate and impose obligations on private actors such as companies, and how this may facilitate the protection of human rights. Joining Lord Justice Singh on the panel were: 

Robert McCorquodale

Professor Robert McCorquodale

Professor of International Law and Human Rights at the University of Nottingham. Robert is also a barrister at Brick Court Chambers in London and Founder of Inclusive Law, a consultancy on business and human rights. 



Deirdre Sheahan

Deirdre Sheahan (Public International Law, 2005)

Director of Paragon Law’s Asylum and Human Rights team. Deirdre has been at the forefront of notable cases which have changed the law in Refugee and Human Rights claims. 



Fiona Laurence

Fiona Laurence (Law, 1984)

Chair of Trustees at Human Rights at Sea, and former Legal Director in the Dispute Resolution department at Mischon De Reya. Fiona is an experienced litigator and has worked in both City law firms and the public sector. 


In a lively session, the panel discussed a wide range of themes, sharing trends and developments across topics from climate change to corporate responsibility. 

On supply chain challenges...

Robert: “Human rights aren’t just about what governments do. In most parts of the world, most of our engagements are with companies, not with the state. For example, if you’re a poor farmer in India, your engagement is going to be mainly with your local factory or store. The government is distant. So we can make profound change if we look at what companies do and what their responsibilities might be.

“If we think about our everyday lives – getting a cup of coffee or lunch – how much do we think about where that’s come from, where the companies have a supply chain? Over time there has been significant developments as national and international laws have begun to put into place regulations for what companies should and shouldn’t’ be doing. We need to think about where we are able to advance regulation and the responsibilities of companies in areas of a great range of human rights and environmental impacts.” 

Fiona: “Many companies may not even realise that there are possible abuses down the supply chain. If you look at any big supermarket, they’ve got fantastic statements about responsible fishing and where they source their fish and seafood. But there’s really no recognition about the rights of the people who are actually in the boat doing the fishing. Any responsible company needs to address the whole supply chain. This issue has only recently been brought into awareness and more education is needed.” 

On increasing legal obligations in business...

Robert: “The UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights apply responsibilities to our companies, but the terminology of those Guiding Principles is not intended to be a legal obligation; it’s meant to be voluntary. Yet it’s becoming less voluntary as national laws begin to put strong legal obligations directly on companies. 

“Governments can be fearful that companies don’t want additional obligations and will leave the country. Actually, a surprising number of companies do want this, as they want legal certainty and clarification of their legal position. An example is the Australian Modern Slavery Act, where the companies came on board strongly. The CEO of one of the largest mining companies in Australia said this is something we should do, and within six months there was legislation, which was an improvement on the UK Modern Slavery Act because the companies were behind it. Of course, there’s a competitive reason that companies want more legislation, so that competitors have to reach the same standards otherwise they would be undercut. Nevertheless, it’s not always the case that companies don’t want legislation on environmental and human rights issues.” 

On the rights of individuals in international situations...

Robert: “The issue of international organisations and human rights is a very pertinent one. International organisations say it’s the state which has the human rights obligations and not us. I think conceptually that is wrong. Human rights, if they mean anything, are about the rights of people in whatever power relationship. It could be companies, international organisations, states, others. International treaty law has defined human rights as between the state and individual, but it can be much more complex than that. I think we need to be careful not to assume that international organisations are outside of human rights obligations. Conceptually, it doesn’t make sense to exclude some actors which have a powerful influence over individuals and groups.”

Fiona: “I think we need to consider the protection of rights for individuals in complex situations involving international organisations. A very recent example is the Iranian tanker that was seized by Gibraltar and deflagged by Panama. The international crew on that ship were effectively left stateless. Had there been an environmental disaster, if the oil tanker had sprung a leak, where does the responsibility lie?”   

Deirdre: “One of the areas of my work is how children are being used across countries as a part of war. We see cases time and time again in this area, for example, the Taliban recruiting young children and putting those children into war zones and situations of conflict. I focus on children in Gaza as a particular social group because there is a very practical issue for Palestinian nationals in that Israel controls the population register for Gaza. If you’re not on this register there is an issue around statelessness. So we look at whether you would be denied access back to your own country, and how is that a violation of human rights.” 

On corporate responsibility and climate change...

Robert: “Climate change and human rights is quite interesting. It’s coming into my field in a different way in that shareholders are trying to hold companies to account by saying that the companies haven’t considered the risk of climate change. There have been examples of this, such as against a bank in Australia and an insurance company in France. Investors, the financial sector and banks are an important group in this too. If they take social issues and environmental issues seriously, then maybe they will begin to put pressure on companies to by stating that they are not going to invest unless the company shows how it is addressing climate change for example.”

Deirdre: “Climate change is something we’re watching quite closely in immigration. I feel it’s only going to be a matter of time before we end up in the situation where people are saying “I can’t return to where I’m from because of an environmental disaster”. Our collective responsibility will very much become a country’s responsibility as to what the country will do in that situation. How will it fit into our laws if somebody comes to the UK and says the reason they need to remain here is because of climate change issues in their own country? I think it’s going to become something quite significant in our future.”   

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