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December 14, 2020

Rethinking MSIs: Rethinking Corporate Accountability

Posted by Fola Adeleke

A version of this contribution was originally published by Afronomics Law on December 11, 2020.

Earlier this month, investigative journalists disclosed that Indian garment factories responsible for the supply to global supermarket chains such as Marks & Spencer, Tesco, and Ralph Lauren were exploiting their workers. Some of the allegations include poor wages, 22-hour work shifts with no toilet or water breaks. These conditions exist despite the existence of a local law, the Indian Factories Act, which sets out working conditions for workers in this industry. More importantly, the brands that use these suppliers in India are all part of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) that was set up in 1998 shortly after the sweatshop conditions that engulfed major brands such as Nike and Gap in the 1990s.

The ETI is part of a trend known as multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs). MSI involve a “collaboration among various public and private actors—such as corporations, governments, CSOs, and rights holders—that have a stake in an issue.” These MSIs set global voluntary industry standards for its members to follow and are often punted as addressing issues of public concern such as human rights violations in specific industries. These MSIs are geared towards establishing a governance model to tackle a gap “where a state either cannot, or will not, fulfill its duty to protect its citizens against human rights violations by companies.” The stated aim of the ETI is to improve working conditions in global supply chains by developing effective approaches to implementing the Base Code of labour practice developed by the initiative.

Despite the increasing popularity of MSIs, it is clear that self-regulation through this governance model is not the answer to driving corporate accountability for matters of public concern such as human rights protection. In a report released in July 2020 by MSI Integrity, a non-profit originally dedicated to understanding the human rights impact and value of MSIs, it was found that MSIs are not effective tools for holding corporations accountable for abuses, protecting rights holders against human rights violations, or providing survivors and victims’ with access to remedy. The report showed that we need to rethink the role of MSIs and the presence of an MSI in an industry should not be a substitute for public regulation.

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December 1, 2020

Supreme Court Hears Case on Child Slavery in Cocoa Industry


Clinic Submits Amicus Curiae Brief on Behalf of Legal Historians


Today, Dec. 1, the Supreme Court of the United States hears oral arguments in a pair of corporate human rights cases against U.S. based chocolate companies Nestlé and Cargill for their role in aiding and abetting child slavery in West Africa. The plaintiffs, six survivors of kidnapping, trafficking, and forced labor, make use of the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), a provision of the First Judiciary Act of 1789 that allows foreign nationals to pursue accountability for law of nations violations in U.S. Courts. In examining the cases, the Supreme Court will consider the question of corporate liability under the ATS for the third time – this time focusing on whether or not the ATS permits cases against U.S. domestic corporations at all.

In October, the International Human Rights Clinic filed an amicus brief on behalf of legal historians in the case against the chocolate companies. The brief includes newly uncovered historical documents from George Washington’s first administration which clearly demonstrate how the founders intended the ATS to apply to violations committed by U.S. subjects. The documents include an opinion by Thomas Jefferson and affirm that the ATS was intended for the very purpose at issue in the current cases: to provide options for redress to foreign nationals whose rights have been violated by U.S. subjects.

A clinical team – Emily Ray JD’21, Jasmine Shin JD’21, Allison Beeman JD’22, and Zarka Shabir JD’22 – under the supervision of Tyler Giannini, Clinic Co-Director worked with the amici on the brief. Amici on the brief were Professors Barbara Aronstein Black, Nikolas Bowie, William R. Casto, Martin S. Flaherty, David Golove, Eliga H. Gould, Stanley N. Katz, Samuel Moyn, and Anne-Marie Slaughter.

The International Human Rights Clinic staff have played a major role in ATS litigation for decades, including in landmark corporate cases such as Doe v. Unocal and Wiwa v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. Since 1980, the law has been a critical means of holding perpetrators accountable for abuses such as extrajudicial killing, torture, war crimes, and crimes against humanity when redress might otherwise be unavailable elsewhere. Still, in recent years, the law has been curtailed and challenged.

You can listen to the oral argument here.

Learn more about the case in the Nestlé & Cargill v. Doe symposium on Just Security and the case preview on SCOTUSblog. Read about all eighteen amicus briefs filed in support of the survivors of child trafficking on the Corporate Accountability Lab’s blog, and dive into Daniel Golove’s article exploring the significance of the new evidence the Clinic relied on in its brief supporting plaintiffs.

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October 9, 2020

Rethinking MSIs: Restructuring MSIs to Improve Social Compliance in Supply Industries

Posted by Zobaida Khan

After the devastating and avoidable collapse of the Rana Plaza in 2013 in Bangladesh, two innovative multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) emerged: the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (“Alliance”) and the Bangladesh Accord on Building and Fire Safety (“Accord”).

They engaged a diverse group of regulatory actors (local suppliers/producers, foreign buyers, the International Labor Organization, the national government, and activist networks), regulatory mechanisms (for operating, financing and monitoring safety inspections), and detailed standards or rules in order to ensure factory safety for garment workers. Moving beyond voluntary codes of conduct and “Do No Harm” policies, these MSIs introduced significant institutional changes in corporate responsibility. They included stronger sourcing policy, improved safety of factory premises, and public reporting of corporate compliance. Indeed, unlike traditional international standard-setting MSIs, the Accord’s terms were legally binding between brands and trade unions. This is the first time an MSI allowed legal enforcement of its provisions and obligations in a transnational labor regulatory setting. Although the terms of both programs have ended, these MSIs attempted to address the regulatory deficiencies created or overlooked by the national government and the supplier factories.

Yet, with continued evidence of a race to the bottom for wages and working conditions in supplier factories, brands offering cut-rate sourcing prices, and recent reports on the costs to the jobs, health and work entitlements of millions of laborers due to COVID-19-related supply contract cancellations, academic and policy debates are focusing on MSIs’ structural and functional effectiveness and the possibility of restructuring these to deliver social justice oriented results:

  1. How could MSIs be more inclusive in their formation?

  2. How could MSIs lead to long-lasting influence on corporate sourcing policies and improvement of work conditions and entitlements?

Although these issues appear separate, I argue that to properly address diverse compliance challenges in supply chains, there needs to be a coherent and connected restructuring of MSIs that both strengthens their participatory mechanisms and influences the transformation of our liberal market system’s dominant business model.

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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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July 16, 2020

Rethinking Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives Blog Series

Posted by Tyler Giannini and Amelia Evans

Ten years ago, our Clinic was asked to figure out a way to evaluate whether multi-stakeholder initiatives—or MSIs for short—were helping to advance human rights or whether in fact they were doing precisely the opposite.

MSIs are voluntary governance efforts that bring together corporations, civil society, academics, and in some cases governments and rights holders themselves to (privately) govern thorny human rights issues, and by 2010, they had proliferated in the business and human rights field.

The allure was (and still is) obvious. If we bring the right players together, they can learn from each other and solve a 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.

Thus, we set out to look at which way the institutions had gone—had they filled their promise or had the inherent flaws gotten the better of them? Little to no systematic work on the question had been done at the time, and what started as a one-semester project turned into a non-profit—MSI Integrity—and a decade of work.

Today, MSI integrity is publishing its new report, entitled ”Not Fit for Purpose,” which compiles its experience and insights over the last decade. The report explores cross-cutting trends and lessons learned about MSIs, as a field, from a human rights perspective. MSI Integrity’s assessment is clear:

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July 16, 2020

New way forward for corporations necessary, says MSI Integrity report


Clinic-incubated org documents systemic failure of business and human rights tool

Screenshot of the banner on the MSI Integrity website which says, "Rethinking the Role of MSIs" on the left, "Not Fit-for-Purpose: The Grand Experiment of Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives in Corporate Accountability, Human Rights, and Global Governance," in the middle, and "Reimagining the Corporation," on the right.
A new website, Not Fit-For-Purpose, explores the insights contained in the report.

Three decades ago, a grand experiment in human rights and global governance began to unfold. In the absence of rigorous government regulation of transnational corporations, civil society organizations began stepping into this regulatory void by collaborating with industry representatives to create voluntary codes of conduct and oversight mechanisms.

These multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) now cover almost every major industry, from certifying food or consumer products as “sustainable,” “fair,” or “ethical,” to establishing good practices for internet companies in respect of privacy and freedom of expression online.

The new report from MSI Integrity, Not Fit-For-Purpose, is the culmination of a decade of research and analysis into international standard-setting MSIs. The report finds that, while MSIs can play important roles for engaging corporations, they are not effective tools to ensure that they respect human rights, to hold them accountable for abuse, or to provide rights holders with access to remedy for abuses. 

“Over time, MSIs [multi-stakeholder initiatives] have become captured and dominated by corporations. So, while they may not have been designed to fail, I think they were destined to fail,” MSI Integrity Executive Director Amelia Evans LLM’11 said recently in a Guardian article about the report.

The report is a call to rethink the role of MSIs, and voluntary regulation more broadly, and for more effective regulation and enforcement of corporations at the local, national and international levels. The report also calls on the human rights community to challenge and change the corporate form itself, which excludes rights holders, workers, and communities from business decisions that impact them more than anyone else.

International Human Rights Clinic students and staff contributed research, writing, and editing, including: Alicia Brudney JD’19, Yanbing Chu JD’19, Sabrina Singh JD’20, Praggya Surana LLM’19, Rebecca Tweedie JD’21, and Vincent Yang JD’20, and Tyler Giannini, HRP and Clinic Co-Director and Clinical Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. Malene Alleyne LLM’17, MSI Integrity’s Research Coordinator and Clinic alum, was instrumental in the report’s production and dissemination.

MSI Integrity was incubated at the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School from 2010-2013 by Evans and Tyler Giannini, who is active on the board and still frequently collaborates with Evans on clinical projects. The organization began after NGOs and government officials — concerned with understanding whether MSIs were working — expressed the need for an independent organization to focus on measuring the effectiveness of MSIs.

Want to learn more about MSIs and the report? See below for commentary, events, and more.

Visit the report website: msi-integrity.org/not-fit-for-purpose/

Stay tuned for a joint blog series with MSI Integrity, “Rethinking Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives,” that will be launching soon.

The text above draws from the “Not Fit-For-Purpose” MSI Integrity report launch website.

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