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Article

1 Oct 2020

Author:
Bennett Freeman

Commentary: Rethinking MSIs: Time to Bury MSIs?—Not so Fast

At a time when corporate accountability and government responsibility are under critical scrutiny, it is useful to revisit what Not-Fit-for Purpose calls “the grand experiment of multi-stakeholder initiatives.”

Despite what the report argues, however, I believe that it is premature to declare MSIs no longer “fit-for-purpose.” We must be clear that the “grand experiment” was indeed bold but not quite so grand. The aim was to supplement, and not supplant, the role of governments where governments could not, or would not, act to protect human rights connected to corporate misconduct. It was an essential start, a beginning but not an end that would be complemented and reinforced by law and regulation when possible. We must not only revisit but revitalize MSIs at a time when, ironically, multi-stakeholder governance models are setting standards across the policy arena beyond the human rights field where they first gained significant influence...

I offer a perspective based on my work over the last two decades with four flagship MSIs: [...] the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights (VPSHR); [...] the Global Network Initiative (GNI); [...] the Fair Labor Association (FLA) and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI).

Each of these MSIs was an imperfect response to issues that seemed intractable in the late 1990s and early 2000s...

Each of these MSIs had significant, ambitious but clearly defined, limited purposes... All have brought together companies and NGOs...

Each of these MSIs strengthen corporate accountability—and fill gaps in government responsibility—through their standards and processes as well as their multi-stakeholder engagement...

All four have fallen well short of perfect consistency... But these MSIs have highly developed accountability mechanisms...

These four MSIs (and others) should closely examine the key findings and observations and the six cross-cutting insights put forward by Not Fit-for-Purpose. I believe that the original goals of these four MSIs are as important and urgent as ever. But each must be self-critical enough to confront their weaknesses, as well as self-confident enough to consolidate their strengths. They must be more transparent and accountable as the wave of mandatory disclosure of human rights due diligence approaches and as human rights benchmarking initiatives gain even greater traction. They must become more inclusive of Global South civil society and companies alike...

While companies must protect and promote as well as respect human rights, greater pressure must be also placed on states—both home and host country governments of multinationals and their supply chain partners—to protect human rights. We need to use every tool: legislation and regulation; litigation and non-judicial remedy; civil society activism and corporate advocacy; trade unions and Worker-driven Social Responsibility initiatives; pressure from responsible investors and financial institutions. MSIs can become fitter-for-purpose if both their attributes and limitations are more clearly understood and appreciated.

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