Blog: Business and Human Rights

September 17, 2020

Rethinking MSIS: MSIs and the Search to Cure the Global Governance Gap

Posted by Judy Gearhart

The phenomenon of multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) has spread rapidly across the globe since the 1990s, with governments and multinational corporations (MNCs) alike promoting them as the new solution to the global governance gap even before they were fully road-tested. Civil society organizations (CSOs) saw them as a way to engage MNCs on the environmental and social problems exacerbated by global trade. MNCs saw a means to inoculate their global reputations from the risks of doing business in places where human rights scandals were greater than at home. Just as MNC staff required vaccines against tropical diseases before departing, the corporation needed to guard against the risk of coming into contact with the plagues of corrupt governments and abusive employers.  

Yet MSIs, at least those focused on the impact of global supply chains, were only set up to address the symptoms, not the cause of these plagues. Most failed to recognize how MNCs were actually fueling corruption and employer abuse by constantly demanding lower prices and faster production times. Thus, the global governance gap grew wider as MNCs diversified their supply chains and effectively played one producer country against the other. When the scandals multiplied and children were found making clothing for Wal-Mart in Honduras or soccer balls for adidas and Nike in Pakistan, global brands sought help from MSIs.

The majority of MSIs are set up as public charities and their goals express the intent to protect a public good. This includes MSIs working with public sector institutions to improve accountability such as the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI), those covering workers’ rights such as Social Accountability International or the Fair Labor Association, and environmentally focused groups such as Rainforest Alliance and Marine Stewardship Council. What nearly all of them have in common is a mission to address a lack of regulation or the weak legal protections of national resources, the environment, or workers. Yet MSIs focused on supply-chain monitoring—as distinct from MSIs engaging the public sector—have been largely silent or disengaged on advocacy for legal reforms and rule of law, often turning a blind eye as member MNCs’ suppliers pursue multi-year legal battles against whistle-blowers or worker organizers

The recently released MSI Integrity report, Not Fit for Purpose, tracks the uptake of MSIs as a reference point for addressing gaps in global governance. MSI Integrity cites how the UN Guiding Principles (UNGPs) on Business and Human Rights extended MSIs legitimacy by directly referencing them, and the 23 countries that have referred to MSIs in their National Action Plans for implementing the UNGPs. Yet most MSIs are a weak stopgap for failing legal protections. They are also poor exemplars of good governance given the extent to which they have eschewed the key elements of transparency, accountability, and participation. 

Not Fit for Purpose could have distinguished more among distinct MSI approaches, e.g. supply-chain versus public governance-focused MSIs, and those treating symptoms through risk mitigation among suppliers versus Fairtrade’s work to gain market access for small farmers. The report is very helpful though, especially in identifying patterns and quantifying how the majority of MSIs fall short on models of good governance: 

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September 3, 2020

Rethinking MSIS: Be Wary of the Fox(es), A Power Analysis of MSIs

Posted by Rebecca Tweedie JD'21 and Tyler Giannini

The opening blog in this series laid out two different paths MSIs could have taken:

The allure [of MSIs] was (and still is) obvious. If we bring the right players together, they can learn from each other and solve the given problem by setting up a democratic institution that can prevent future abuses and sanction violators, and governments will not have to pass hard laws and unnecessary regulations. The potential flaws were (and remain) just as obvious—the power imbalances amongst the players are acute and asking industry to voluntarily give up power and self-regulate is a fool’s errand that puts the fox in charge of the chicken coop.

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August 27, 2020

Rethinking MSIs: Are Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives Mere Lip Service for Local Communities?

Posted by Jaff Bamenjo, Coordinator of RELUFA/Cameroon

Multi-stakeholder Initiatives (MSIs) emerged in the 1990s as frameworks for engagement between governments, the private sector and civil society organizations (CSOs) to address human rights issues in business. There are currently several sector-specific MSIs around the world originally conceived to address problems, ranging from labor abuse to corruption, in agriculture, extractive industries, forests, the environment and beyond. After more than two decades, however, local communities are now questioning whether MSIs have proved relevant and effective in addressing these problems.

As a civil society actor who works closely with communities affected by resource extraction in Cameroon, I have closely followed the implementation of two MSIs: the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS) and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) for close to a decade. The KPCS and EITI were both created in the early 2000s and received with a lot of enthusiasm by some CSOs as tools to promote transparency and accountability in the extractive sector and prevent diamond-fueled conflicts, respectively. Though almost twenty years later, it is quite telling how these MSIs are oblivious to the concerns of the local communities that were the intended beneficiaries of their creation.


The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme: Sidelining civil society and not addressing key issues


Formed in 2003 by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, the KPCS is a joint government, industry and civil society initiative aimed at eliminating the trade in conflict diamonds. The KPCS was created in response to public outcry at the end of the 1990s over diamond-fueled conflicts in certain African countries. Today, the KPCS takes credit for eliminating about 98.8% of conflict diamonds in the world.

The commonly used definition of conflict diamonds, however, is incredibly narrow: “rough diamonds used by rebel groups or their allies fighting to overthrow a legitimate government.” While it can be argued that, apart from in the Central African Republic, there are no rebel movements currently using diamonds to fund wars to overthrow legitimate governments, human rights violations and massacres have reportedly continued in diamond mines around the world. And in turn, they disproportionately impact local communities near the mines.

Per the narrow definition of conflict diamonds, KPCS pays little attention to such human rights violations. Instead, they classify them as outside their scope. But such neglect by the KPCS to include other forms of abuse committed by the military or private security agents is incomprehensible to those most affected. In the Marange diamond fields of Zimbabwe, some CSOs have reported security agents for private mining companies unleashing dogs on and shooting defenseless local artisanal miners. Yet diamonds sourced from these fields are certified and allowed to enter the international market.

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August 27, 2020

Learning About Business and Human Rights with MSI Integrity


Q&A with Rebecca Tweedie JD’21


Last month, the Institute for Multi-Stakeholder Initiative Integrity (MSI Integrity) reflected on 10 years of trying to make the world better for workers and rights-holders in the business world in a new report, “Not Fit-for-Purpose.” MSI Integrity, an organization Amelia Evans LLM’12 and Human Rights Program and International Human Rights Clinic Co-Director Tyler Giannini co-founded in 2013, has spent the last decade dedicated to understanding the human rights impact and value of voluntary multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs). MSIs are collaborations between businesses, civil society, and other stakeholders that were originally piloted to give rights-holders a seat at the table with corporations. The new report explains in detail how, after years of trial and error, MSIs have failed to deliver on their promise and ensure best practices in the business and human rights landscape. The organization has promised a new way forward for their organization: exploring a world beyond corporations.

Over the years, International Human Rights Clinic students and staff have contributed dozens of hours of research and writing to projects with MSI Integrity. Rebecca Tweedie JD’21 worked closely with Giannini and Evans this year on the report and spent January Term 2020 interning with MSI Integrity. We recently spoke with her to learn more about what she learned on the project and her interest in human rights.


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August 25, 2020

Human Rights Clinic team submits amicus brief in Chiquita Brands lawsuit

Posted by Dana Walters

Chiquita bananas on display in grocery store
Credit: cbarnesphotography/iStock

If everything had gone according to schedule, the International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) would have filed an amicus curiae brief in December 2019 in a case against Chiquita Brands International, the world’s largest banana company. The suit, on behalf of families who suffered mass atrocities by paramilitary groups during the Colombian armed conflict, seeks accountability for the reign of terror Chiquita aided and abetted from 1997 to 2004.

However, after several delays and further challenges caused by the pandemic, the clinic and the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) finally filed the brief on behalf of human rights experts on June 5, 2020. The process included dozens of drafts and memos, multiple back-and-forths with amici, and hundreds of hours of time of a dozen alumni and students in multiple time zones. The amicus brief is one small part of a larger, evolving corporate accountability litigation landscape, one in which the clinic has been involved for decades. In a globalized economy where supply chains are diffused, attorneys and affected communities have sought to use U.S. courts to stop U.S. corporations and executives from assisting in violating human rights abroad.

“Chiquita and cases like it present a central question facing U.S. courts today—whether the United States is going to become a safe haven for U.S. corporations implicated in human rights violations outside the country,” said Tyler Giannini, co-director of Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Program (HRP) and the IHRC.

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August 20, 2020

Rethinking MSIs: Where is the debate about democracy and multi-stakeholder governance?

Posted by Harris Gleckman

Multi-stakeholder standard-setting organizations, or multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs), are part of a wider political push to introduce multi-stakeholderism as a legitimate component in global governance. However, they are not sufficiently democratic or accountable to external constituencies to warrant their status or standing as global governance tools.

Understanding the different types of MSIs: standard-setting, policy-setting and project-delivery 


There are actually two distinct forms of MSI. One sub-class focuses primarily on enhancing social, environmental, and community goals through setting global market standards, and secondarily, on balancing these concerns with its management of conflicts between firms and sectors in a given “socially responsible” global market. The other sub-class of MSI reverses these priorities. In the case of internet governance, for example, the primary focus of the standard-setting activity is managing inter-corporate and inter-sub-sector battles, while the secondary focus is responding to calls for social access, enhanced privacy, and discounted pricing for marginal communities.  

Beyond standard-setting MSIs, there are two other forms of multi-stakeholder global governance arrangements: (1) multi-stakeholder bodies that develop global policy directions; and (2) multi-stakeholder consortia which implement specific geographically and time-limited projects. 

On the policy front, for example, one can look at the World Economic Forum with its effort to set global policy via their Global Future Councils, or their “offer” to take leadership of work areas traditionally occupied by the United Nations like food security and biodiversity, and their new strategic partnership agreement with the Office of the UN Secretary-General. These policy-oriented multi-stakeholder arrangements convene, usually under the leadership of a corporate body, a combination of market-oriented government figures, friendly civil society organizations, academic specialists, and corporate executives eager to develop a public policy consensus within a global market system. 

Public private partnerships are an example of project-delivery multi-stakeholderism. They bring together separate categories of actors but, rather than setting standards, they seek to deliver a specific public good or service while effectively gaining a degree of governance over a specific population. 

These three types of multi-stakeholder arrangements—standard-setting, policy-setting, and project-delivery—reflect the diversity of forms of multi-stakeholderism in practice and in theory. They represent a drive to shift global governance away from multilateralism and one-country-one-vote toward a multi-stakeholder form of global governance. 

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August 11, 2020

WATCH: “Beyond Business-as-Usual”


On July 30, we hosted a webinar, “Beyond Business-as-Usual: Lessons from workers, communities and the failed experiment of multi-stakeholder initiatives,” with MSI Integrity. The event drew from MSI Integrity’s recent report examining international standard-setting multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs).

The discussion was live-illustrated by Sita Magnuson, Experience Designer & Educator at dpict. Krizna Gomez, Director of Programs and lead facilitator at JustLabs, moderated. We were lucky enough to have insights from:

– Joseph Cureton, Chief Coordinating Officer at Obran Cooperative
– Dr. Surya Deva, Member, UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights
– Amelia Evans, Executive Director, MSI Integrity
– Daniel Fireside, Capital Coordinator, Equal Exchange
– Tyler Giannini, Co-Director and Clinical Professor, International Human Rights Clinic and Human Rights Program, Harvard Law School
– Gerardo Reyes Chavez, a key leader from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers

Missed it? You can still watch the event NOW below:

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July 30, 2020

Rethinking MSIs: Regulating Responsible Business Conduct

Posted by Manon Wolfkamp, David Ollivier de Leth, and Mariëtte van Huijstee

Between 2014 and 2019, Dutch businesses in garments and textile, banking, forestry, gold, food products, insurance, pension funds, metals, floriculture, and natural stones all entered into government-induced agreements to encourage responsible business practice. Over five years, eleven such agreements were completed. These multi-stakeholder, voluntary, sector level Responsible Business Conduct (RBC) agreements have been cornerstones of the Dutch government’s method to  incentivize companies to respect human rights and the environment for years, and can be regarded as government-induced multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs). Inviting companies and business associations in high human rights risk sectors to enter into negotiations with civil society organizations (CSOs) and the government, RBC agreements aim to encourage companies to develop their own policies for promoting responsible business conduct. But are they effective?

The present Dutch governments’ coalition agreement agreed to evaluate this policy, which was executed by KIT Institute over the past few months and published in July 2020. The long-awaited evaluation shows that the Dutch policy promoting responsible business conduct by means of RBC agreements is insufficient. 

The evaluation draws critical conclusions: only 1.6 percent of the companies active in high-risk sectors participate directly in the agreements. In addition, some sectors, such as the oil and gas sector, refuse to enter into any agreement at all. In other sectors, the share of companies reached is moderate (such as clothing and textiles and natural stone) to low (horticulture, metal). Substantial progress in the implementation of due diligence by participating companies was observed in only two out of 11 evaluated agreements (namely in clothing and textile and banking). 

It is also noteworthy that various agreements lack independent monitoring (for example, food and wood), which creates a risk of greenwashing. Furthermore, there is no clear minimum standard that the agreements must meet. Commitments of companies in two RBC agreements are actually not in line with the international normative framework (wood and vegetable proteins). The evaluation also shows that the role of the Dutch government is inadequate. Especially during the negotiation phase, the business sector is in the lead: only the private sector can initiate negotiations, and critical CSOs can be replaced by more cooperative organisations in order to reach an agreement. The government can fix this imbalance by taking on a greater role itself during the negotiations, for example by not financing agreements that do not meet a set minimum standard. 

The evaluation is positive about the role of the covenants as a means to connect companies to NGOs and trade unions, to facilitate exchanges and to develop a harmonized approach to due diligence. 

When it comes to realizing positive effects or reducing negative impacts on adversely affected rights holders in the targeted sectors, the KIT evaluation concludes: “Across the RBC agreements, progress on due diligence is largely too limited to identify concrete impacts”( p.8) and “Overall, we have not observed a reduction in negative impacts in global value chains as a result of the RBC agreements” (p.9). Furthermore, the research reports unresolved differences in expectations between companies and CSOs on the extent to which RBC agreements should function as platforms to hold companies to account.All in all, the outcomes of the KIT evaluation show great similarity with the outcomes of MSI Integrity’s meta-analysis of MSI’s titled Not Fit-For-Purpose published in July, as is exemplified by this picture taken from the report:

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July 28, 2020

July 30 Virtual Event: Beyond Business-as-Usual

Text reads "Beyond Business-as-Usual," with sub, "Lessons from workers, communities, and the failed experiment of multi-stakeholder initiatives," on July 30 at 10am to 11am.


As part of our collaboration with MSI Integrity in the #RethinkingMSIs series, we’re hosting a discussion with some all-star panelists on Thursday, July 30 at 10 am ET to talk about building better tools to center workers and support human rights. The event will draw insights from MSI Integrity’s recent report examining international standard-setting multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs).

The discussion will be live-illustrated by Sita Magnuson, Experience Designer & Educator at dpict. Krizna Gomez, Director of Programs and lead facilitator at JustLabs, will moderate the event.

Speakers will include:

Joseph Cureton, Chief Coordinating Officer at Obran Cooperative
Dr. Surya Deva, Member, UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights
Amelia Evans, Executive Director, MSI Integrity
Daniel Fireside, Capital Coordinator, Equal Exchange
Tyler Giannini, Co-Director and Clinical Professor, International Human Rights Clinic and Human Rights Program, Harvard Law School
Gerardo Reyes Chavez, a key leader from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers

Read the full description on our events page. Register via zoom today!

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July 23, 2020

Rethinking MSIs: Binding Brands to Create Change

Posted by Christie Miedema, Campaign and Outreach Coordinator, Clean Clothes Campaign

When the COVID19 pandemic hit, garment brands and retailers around the world cancelled their orders. What was to them a logical risk and cost reducing measure, meant destitution for millions of garment workers around the world. Public outcry over corporate behavior led a range of brands to quickly mend their ways. However, the question remains why public outcry was even needed. Brands have spent years promoting programs they claim guarantee protection for their workers. So why couldn’t they rely on those?

In the 1970s and 1980s garment brands started to outsource production abroad. This was a step that seemed to have only advantages: lower prices, lax labor regulation, less risk. Reduced to a mere client of garment factories elsewhere in the world, garment brands and retailers could wash their hands of any responsibility for workers – or so they thought.

Enter the rules, but set and monitored by whom?


Following a series of exposés in the 1990s documenting horrific conditions in sweatshops, brands took action to curate codes of conduct and imposed them on supplier factories. This progressed to the emergence of a social auditing industry to oversee suppliers’ compliance, as well as social compliance initiatives to synchronize and oversee these codes, often in the form of voluntary, multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs). This all prompts the question: given the tools brands have created to regulate working conditions in the garment industry, why are workers being left to suffer during the pandemic?

The answer lies within the mechanism of these voluntary MSIs. Behind the façade of battling exploitation, MSIs have become little more than a fig leaf for fashion; a tool enabling brands to dictate the rules, while shielding the industry against responsibility and criticism, rather than protecting the workers.

MSIs, which come in different shades of brand-friendliness and ambition, have certainly played a role in normalizing ideas of supply chain responsibility, as well as facilitating discussions between brands, unions, NGOs and other stakeholders. However, as a recent report on supply chain transparency published by the Transparency Pledge Coalition has shown, many MSIs are no longer taking the lead in moving the more unwilling brands towards stronger politics, but are instead surpassed left and right by members who voluntarily go beyond what the MSIs prescribe. Only one MSI was willing to take the challenge of the Transparency Pledge coalition to actually take the lead and make transparency a membership requirement. Another recent report shows that a “soft measure” such as due diligence reporting, remains wanting. And although MSIs’ complaint mechanisms still remain useful avenues for workers and labor rights activists to appeal to if a member brand is unresponsive to resolve a case of labor rights violations, which continues to be tried again and again, the same limitations apply: the outcome is not binding.

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