Economic globalisation has to be a fair globalisation, enabling the realisation of human rights and the protection of the environment.

For more than a decade, the Institute has focused on business and human rights. Since 2016, RWI’s work has expanded to cover environment and human rights. Our goal is the integration of human rights considerations in economic decision-making and regulatory mechanisms for socially and environmentally responsible conduct in the global economy. That requires work in three interrelated areas:

• Human rights and business
• Human rights and the environment
• Human rights and development

Radu Mares

Acting Research Director, Associate Professor, Head of Economic Globalisation and Human Rights Thematic Area

+ 46 46 222 12 43

Malin Oud

Head of Stockholm Office, Director of China Office, Head of Economic Globalisation and Human Rights Thematic Area

+46 (0)70 360 8702

As a human rights law institute, RWI seeks to contribute to the development of governance and regulatory solutions that support sustainable and responsible economic decision-making and business conduct. This theme is about ensuring that economic decision-makers take human rights into account in all their decisions, and are held accountable for their actions. The challenge is to make human rights laws real and useable in a wide array of economic and social contexts, which requires:

• Clear human rights standards that can be effectively integrated into economic and social policy and practice.
• Analytical tools that enable practitioners to use the standards effectively in day-to-day decision-making.
• Conceptual frameworks that can criticize current economic and development policy arrangements and also can point to a feasible way forward.


RWI has delivered publications, training materials, capacity-building modules and events on issues such as:

  • the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) and other international and sectorial CSR instruments
  • corporate human rights due diligence 
  • human rights approaches to environmental governance
  • the integration of human rights, environment and economic development in Asia
  • the regulation of transnational business operations
  • collaborations with stakeholders from the private sector, government, human rights institutions and academics in high-risk countries and emerging markets in Asia and Africa

The situation

The liberalisation of trade and investment has resulted in a deeply integrated global economy. Some transnational companies today have bigger turnovers than some countries’ GDP's. In this context, norms have evolved and expectations on companies have grown. As a result of the evolving global economy, investment and finance brings threats and opportunities to human rights.

The threat is that ‘economic’ interests and forces become dominant and entrenched through new global rules and strong institutions while ‘social’ aspects are de-prioritised and backed by weak legal protections that are being further eroded by market forces.

International organizations such as the UN and EU continue to focus on the implementation of the UNGPs adopted in 2011. The UN machinery increasingly uses the UNGPs to require information from states on corporate accountability. The focus on remedies for victims has gathered steam through the efforts of the UN High Commissioner since 2014 backed by likeminded efforts in the Council of Europe. Discussions of a possible treaty on business and human rights have continued in the UN since 2014 with a focus on legal incentives and remedies. A rather slow follow up is happening through National Action Plans. A total of 13 has been adopted by early 2018 and more are in the making though there is a feeling of insufficient ambition.

Victims of human rights abuses continue to seek justice abroad. Courts in home states increasingly use tort laws to establish a parent company’s wrongdoings. This trend corresponds to the decline in the use of the Alien Tort Claims Act following the Kiobel decision in 2013. Non-judicial remedies such as the mediation system of the OECD carry promise although they have inherent limitations and display wide variation among countries in terms of their effectiveness.

Free trade agreements contain a higher number of references to labour rights in so called ’social clauses’. However they are not backed by strong enforcement provisions.

There is growing empirical research done to see how they effective they can be under these circumstances. The EU appears to lead with its approach integrating trade and development although rhetoric does not always match implementation.

The international investment regime is in a period of adjustment. It is evolving under sustained criticism of dispute settlement provisions and the continued perception of imbalance between investors’ protection and societal and environmental considerations. There are significant reform efforts carried by the EU and UN agencies to rebalance the system.

Also notable is the evolution of production and distribution arrangements through increasingly fragmented and dispersed global value chains. That raises significant complexities for those promoting responsible business conduct, including lawmakers in developed countries. Their preferred regulatory strategy is transparency regulations. Public procurement laws as adopted in the EU offer contractual means to promote responsible practices in those businesses that bid in the vast governmental procurement market.

The CSR practices of businesses continue to evolve. There is increasing realization that individual corporate efforts and piecemeal approaches that do not target root causes of problems fall short. Tragedies like the collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in 2013 reveal shortcomings in classical CSR approaches. The Bangladesh Accord marked an innovation in multistakeholder CSR arrangements and a possible model for other industries and countries. Such developments fuel interest in ‘beyond audit’ approaches to CSR.

The Global Deal initiated by Sweden in 2016 is a test case for gauging the maturity of CSR and the viability of ambitious CSR approaches in a globalized economy where both states and businesses compete fiercely.

The SDGs adopted in 2015 by the UN offer a comprehensive framework meant to integrate and synergize economic, environmental and societal development. The role of the private sector and multistakeholder partnerships is clearly spelled out, including by reference to the UNGPs.

They offer the chance to revitalize economic, social and cultural rights. Being indicator and data driven, the SDGs can complement the human rights system based on legal obligations and UN monitoring.

Social and environmental sustainability are increasingly being seen as two sides of the same coin. The challenge is to bridge the two policy domains of human rights and environmental protection. That will, on the one hand, safeguard the realization of human rights under threat from environmental degradation and, on the other hand, use legal human rights to improve the quality and equity of environmental policy-making.

Environmental harm interferes with the rights to life, health, food, water, housing and livelihoods. Freedom of expression, freedom of association and human rights principles such as non-discrimination, participation, rule of law and accountability are important measures to improve environmental sustainability.

There is a need for integrated solutions and collective action that create synergies between human rights and environmental sustainability, with a strong gender dimension.


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