Multi-stakeholder Initiatives (MSIs) bring together various stakeholders—such as corporations, civil society, governments, and local communities—to collaborate in addressing a specific issue. In the context of business and human rights, this frequently involves developing standards for specific industries, regions, or issues relevant to human rights. Some MSIs focus on a narrow issue, such as child labor in cocoa production, while others attempt to look at the broader human rights, environmental, and social issues raised in relation to a group of industries. While many focus on setting standards for industry and monitoring the implementation of those standards, others have chosen to focus on promoting policy engagement or learning amongst stakeholders to improve business systems. Many include certification schemes and some also include grievance mechanisms to handle complaints.
As the involvement of business in human rights violations has gained increasing public attention over the last twenty years, the question of how to prevent and remedy these violations has become ever more important. International and domestic law has often failed to address the full range of human rights impacts of businesses, and instead actors have turned to voluntary initiatives. This has been especially true regarding transnational business, where there has often been a lack of global governance suitable to address the human rights implications of specific industries. For example, companies and consumers have wanted to know that imported goods were not a product of human rights violations in the country where they were made. Companies have been unsure what to do when they operate in a country where human rights violations within its industry are ignored or even encouraged. To address these sorts of issues, one particular form of voluntary initiative has emerged as especially prominent since the late 1990s: the multi-stakeholder initiative (MSI).
The contemporary significance of MSIs is unquestionable. They are an important part of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. There are now MSIs operating all over the world to address issues in most major global industries, including: apparel manufacturing, extractives industries, and major commodities such as palm oil, coffee, diamonds, and soy.
MSIs have become increasingly prevalent as a mechanism used by companies, governments and civil society to address human rights, or environmental, social or other issues impacted in relation to transnational business activities. Although many MSIs exist and are in operation worldwide—and there are some listings that identify MSIs in a particular region, industry, or issue-area—there has been no comprehensive effort to identify and map principal characteristics of existing MSIs related to business and human rights.
MSI Integrity is currently working with pro bono support from law firm Miller & Chevalier in Washington, DC, to identify and map existing business and human rights-related MSIs in an open and accessible database. This project will be the first public mapping of MSIs operating in business and human rights. MSI Integrity will continue our commitment to transparency and accessibility by posting comprehensive identifying characteristics of existing MSIs openly on our website.
Despite the growing prominence and expanding number of MSIs, there is no agreement about their effectiveness. Some people have viewed MSIs as important initiatives that will advance protection for human rights and build systems to improve how businesses deal with such concerns. Others have criticized MSIs for requiring significant investments of time and resources from all stakeholders while producing little change for the communities and individuals affected, and distracting from efforts to create binding human rights standards. There has not been a sustained focus on the challenge of evaluating the effects of MSIs across different industry sectors. Similarly, there has been little effort to establish or standardize good practice amongst MSIs, thus leading many MSIs to reinvent the wheel instead of learning lessons from previous initiatives.
There is a need for systematic evaluation of the institutional design of MSIs from a human rights perspective. Three critical questions remain unanswered:
MSI Integrity seeks to explore these questions to understand the impact and value of MSIs, and ensure that these and other voluntary initiatives protect and promote human rights.
Last updated: March 17, 2014