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12 Sep 2023

Andrea Biswas-Tortajada, Zulay Buchs, Catherine McDonald, Suzanne Varrall

Commentary: Insights from the 8th Business and Human Rights Young Researchers’ Summit

In the heart of New York City, from August 10th to 12th, 2023, a cohort of twelve scholars hailing from multiple countries, backgrounds and disciplines converged for the 8th Business and Human Rights (BHR) Young Researchers’ Summit. Since it was first organised in 2016, the Summit has become a well-established platform for PhD students and early post-doctoral researchers to showcase their work in an interdisciplinary and collaborative format.


The research studies presented at the Summit underscored the central role of rights holders’ voices in understanding risks, improving accountability, and securing remedies in relation to adverse corporate human rights impacts. Yet they also highlighted the ways in which corporate behaviours, power dynamics, and the BHR field and discourse itself have presented barriers to rights holders’ voices being sought, heard, and prioritised. Researchers from this multi-disciplinary cohort stressed the importance of approaches that centre the voices of rights holders to advance the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Other discussions highlighted the potential of multi-stakeholder collaboration in amplifying these voices, fostering meaningful change, and challenging the status quo.


The connections between politics and power were also evidenced in presentations that touched on the global arms trade and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Participants explored the roles played by corporate actors in volatile geopolitical contexts, delving into the moral and economic dimensions entwined in a company’s decision to either maintain or withdraw operations from an aggressor country. The responsibilities of business in times of conflict were further framed in light of inherently harmful products and business models that facilitate and exacerbate violence.

For participants, empirical research stood out as a potent tool to navigate the interconnected challenges of power imbalances and marginalised voices. There was a collective aspiration to move beyond theory-heavy arguments and embrace the realm of observation and experience, acknowledging the invaluable insights that empirical research can provide. Drawing from the unique contexts of Brazil, Australia, Ethiopia, Luxembourg, and beyond, scholars magnified crucial issues such as environmental regulation; due diligence regulation; modern slavery; civil society participation; and the intersection of business and human rights in conflict zones.

Presentations of empirical research proposals and findings were striking in their efforts to respond to the challenges of the marginalisation of rights holders and entrenched power imbalances. One empirical research project involved field work in a shale gas extraction operation in provincial China, looking at issues of accountability, politics, and processes for enabling dialogue between communities and businesses. Projects like these actively seek to reshape prevailing discourses by foregrounding empirical research methods and incorporating disciplines that have often been excluded from BHR academic debates and policy spaces.


The Summit’s message was unequivocal. Rather than charting a single path forward, the diversification of disciplines, theories, and methods in BHR research and practice must continue. Scholars must carve out space for introspective and critical approaches, whilst placing rights holders’ voices at the forefront.