March 25, 2017

Berkeley-Haas Launches Human Rights & Business Initiative

By Krysten Crawford

Companies are taking more responsibility for combatting human rights violations worldwide and Berkeley-Haas is taking bold steps to help businesses achieve their goals.

Late last year the Berkeley-Haas Center for Responsible Business launched the Human Rights & Business Initiative. The initiative combines existing and new courses with cutting-edge research and outreach programs to help companies devise their own human rights strategies.

The new initiative reflects a worldwide shift in responsibility for human rights, traditionally viewed as solely a government’s responsibility, said Robert Strand, the executive director of the Center for Responsible Business.

Today, there’s a broad consensus among leading companies that they have a responsibility and opportunity to respect human rights — from ensuring safe and fair working conditions in factories worldwide to grappling with government surveillance of Internet communications to balancing workers’ rights in the new “gig economy,” Strand says.

“Human rights have really risen to the top of the corporate responsibility agenda in recent years,” adds Faris Natour, a business and human rights expert who joined Berkeley-Haas last year and is directing the Human Rights & Business Initiative. The challenge, he adds, is that many companies don’t yet have the tools they need to build awareness of human rights issues into their DNA. That’s an opportunity for Berkeley-Haas, he says.

Strand and Natour
Robert Strand, (left) executive director of the Center for Responsible Business & Faris Natour, director of the Human Rights & Business Initiative

The initiative will play a key role within the Center for Responsible Business. This includes engaging with the student-run Haas Socially Responsible Investment Fund (HSRIF), which holds more than $2 million in investments.

The initiative has three key components:

Teaching: Berkeley-Haas already offers a course on business and human rights. The goal now is to integrate a human rights component into more mainstream business courses, such as supply chain management and finance. Conversely, the hope is that human rights courses taught throughout UC-Berkeley will also incorporate business management lessons.

Research: The initiative plans to tap the resources of the Sustainable Products & Solutions program at the Center for Responsible Business to develop proven strategies that companies can use to integrate human rights issues into their decision-making. For example, the initiative will study the link between human rights and financial performance, the role of investors in funding sustainable businesses, and how companies in the “gig economy” can thrive while also guaranteeing workers wrights, Natour says.

Collaboration: Bringing companies, governments, investors, and other stakeholders together to devise strategies for handling human rights issues is difficult, but necessary, Strand says. Haas is well-positioned to foster collaboration through conferences, workshops and other avenues, he says.

The decision to create the initiative furthers a long tradition at UC Berkeley of advancing human rights. It’s also a reflection of the Berkeley-Haas Defining Principles. “We are constantly encouraging — even demanding — our students to go ‘Beyond Yourself’ and to ‘Question the Status Quo.’ That’s ultimately what we’re doing,” Natour says.

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