Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives (MSIs) bring together various stakeholders—such as corporations, civil society, government, and local communities—to collaborate in addressing a specific issue. In the context of business and human rights, this is frequently done by 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, while others attempt to look at the general human rights, environmental and social issues relevant to a particular industry. While many focus on setting standards for industry and monitoring, 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.

[toggle title=”How did MSIs emerge as an important global business and human rights tool?“] As the involvement of businesses 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 in respect of 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 UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.  There are now MSIs operating all over the world in major global industries, including apparel manufacturing, extractives industries, and major commodities such as palm oil, coffee, diamonds, and soy.
[/toggle] [toggle title=”Unanswered questions: do MSIs effectively protect and promote human rights?“]Despite the growing prominence 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, while producing little change for the communities and individuals 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 effectiveness of MSIs as human rights mechanisms. Three critical questions remain largely unanswered:

  • Are MSIs effective human rights mechanisms?
  • If so, what aspects of MSI design and structure effectively protect and promote human rights?
  • Finally, which MSIs are currently designed and structured in a manner that protects and promotes human rights?

MSI Integrity seeks to explore these questions to ensure that MSIs protect and promote human rights.