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.
Human Rights Program: What first attracted you to the International Human Rights Clinic? Did you come to law school hoping to study human rights?
Rebecca Tweedie: Actually I came to law school hoping to deepen my knowledge on domestic issues. Between law school and college, I was doing international education work. I worked for Fulbright in Malaysia and ran trips in Israel and Palestine. When I came to law school, I wanted to lean into social justice work at home in the U.S., but I was sucked back into the human rights clinic almost immediately.
HRP: What sucked you in?
RT: There were really interesting projects and a great community. I joined HLS Advocates for Human Rights my first year in law school, and I was assigned to a corporate accountability project with the International Criminal Court. I didn’t know much about business and human rights before that. It just felt like such a pressing area of need within human rights, so I requested to work on Tyler Giannini’s team when I enrolled in the Clinic the following year.
HRP: Could you talk about the structure of Tyler’s team and how you worked with the other students?
RT: It was a larger team for the Clinic — there were eight of us. But I really loved it. We called ourselves Giannini and Associates. It felt like a little law firm. We all worked collaboratively but each person took the lead on a different project. I got glimpses into work that was not necessarily business and human rights-focused, like writing appellate briefs or doing policy work in Myanmar. I took the lead with Sabrina Singh JD’20 on the business and human rights project area and especially the MSI Integrity report.
HRP: Tell me about your collaboration with Sabrina.
RT: Coming into the Clinic for the first time, I think I doubted my ability to contribute to projects that were staffed by experts in business and human rights. I was so lucky to have been paired with Sabrina because she quickly disabused me of that notion, both by example in the way that she unapologetically brought her expertise to our projects and by consistently inquiring about and then elevating my thoughts and ideas. As an example, when we first started reviewing the MSI report, I was hesitant to make substantive edits, because I am definitely not an expert. Then I would watch Sabrina put these really thoughtful comments in the document responding to Amelia and Tyler, and it helped me think through my own reactions and be more confident with my contributions. She has been a really important mentor and friend.
HRP: So by the time you got to the Clinic, you were fully invested in business and human rights. But did you know what an MSI was?
RT: No, not at all. But I realized I knew what they were in theory – I’ve heard of Fair Trade – I just didn’t have the language or the background knowledge to have an opinion about them as a field.
HRP: What’s your view of them now?
RT: Well, it’s interesting because when I interned for MSI Integrity during January, I became really fascinated by what they’ve planned as their next project. Moving forward, they’re going to be much more focused on “finding a new way forward for corporations” beyond MSIs. I want to be a part of helping bridge the gap between human rights and business and other social justice movements that have long been challenging the corporate form, so the opportunity to work on this was really exciting for me. But after working with them in winter, it became very clear that the report was going to be an all-hands-on-deck operation. Others had been working on it for such a long time, so I saw my role as providing fresh eyes. My knowledge of MSIs grew by working backwards through the report, starting from a conclusion that I already wholeheartedly agreed with. Now I have a much deeper appreciation for the potential that MSIs represented when they first appeared on the human rights scene, and the lessons that can be drawn by their failures to protect rights-holders.
HRP: Where do you feel like you made the most contribution?
RT: The report certainly would’ve been published without me. That being said, I was really invested in making sure the narrative and argument were as strong as they could be. The report is 250 pages and there is so much good data and information — a strong narrative seemed crucial to make that data as impactful as possible. Sabrina, Tyler, and I had a good rhythm editing and reworking sections. They were both great at re-centering the language of the report on the communities that we hoped would read it. We asked questions like: Will this make sense for rights-holders and people for whom this data represents their lived realities? Will it speak to those working in human rights and corporate accountability? What about a more general public?
HRP: What surprised you most about the report?
RT: It was really interesting to learn that MSIs — as an instrument — really peaked in usage and influence even as it became clear that they were failing to actually uphold human rights. We focused a lot on a chapter that charted this history. MSIs were an experiment in private governance and corporate accountability that felt necessary because the state was failing to regulate bad corporate actors. As MSIs took hold, dissenting voices within the business and human rights space raised concerns about lack of community involvement and too much corporate involvement. As the report points out, these concerns were realized – existing power structures made it very difficult for there to be any sort of equal footing between different stakeholders in MSIs. Corporations dominate the space because they are in the position of voluntarily ceding power instead of the NGOs and the rights-holders who are trying to grab it, and that has led to weak standards and a lack of real accountability. What surprised me was the degree to which so many actors in this space have been willing to implicitly or explicitly accept this dynamic in exchange for any foot in the door, even when the impact hoped for isn’t materializing. This story feels very relevant for other human rights or justice-oriented organizations that do not actively address the ways broader power structures are internally replicated, making it difficult to effectively promote equity. I learned so much from the report and from Tyler’s long engagement with the project, and I think its recommendations hold a lot of promise.
HRP: What are you most excited about for the future of this work? How has it influenced your future trajectory?
RT: I came to law school because I felt like there were communities closer to home where I could be useful as a lawyer. Broadly, I want to work for social and economic justice. Being part of this with MSI Integrity has reminded me that big-picture work can and should be rooted in local problems. Some of the biggest corporations in the world are located in the United States, and the negative effects of their operations are felt in communities in the Global South and also in communities right here in Boston. Projects that are trying to make human rights more relevant for communities — to make human rights a real tool for locals to build power — have implications for both these contexts and create a lot of potential for solidarity across contexts. This report has completely influenced the way I think about my work moving forward, by building a bridge between my prior international work and my current interests in community-based lawyering.