MSIs have been influential as human rights tools, but that influence, along with their credibility, is waning.
The stamp of legitimacy conferred upon MSIs by powerful international institutions, governments, and civil society organizations (CSOs), epitomized by the inclusion of MSIs in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), gave MSIs significant influence in the field of business and human rights as a prominent response to major governance gaps.
Over the past decade, however, growing skepticism among some civil society actors has resulted in a retreat from MSIs, allowing corporate interests to increasingly dominate the field. Instead of being a response to civil society campaigns, MSIs are now often the target of advocacy for their specific failings and concerning practices. This suggests that the influence of MSIs is eroding. In its place is a resurgence in advocacy for public regulation and more accountable private mechanisms, such as the Worker-driven Social Responsibility initiatives, that may better bridge the governance gaps that MSIs had promised to fill.
KEY FINDINGS AND OBSERVATIONS
- MSIs emerged as a default response in the Global North to many of the major global business-related human rights crises in the 1990s and 2000s. They were often developed with support from Global North governments or large international NGOs. They were often perceived as a compromise between no regulation and mandatory public regulation.
- MSIs have enjoyed broad influence in the business and human rights landscape. The support of powerful governments, multinational corporations, and CSOs legitimized MSIs as good practice. Prominent CSOs called for the creation of MSIs and helped found them in many industries. Subsequently, the inclusion of MSIs in the remedial pillar of the UNGPs crystalized them as a “field” that became increasingly institutionalized and well-resourced.
- MSIs have influenced government action and policy. For example, at least 16 of the 23 National Action Plans that countries have published as part of their efforts to implement the UNGPs include reference to MSIs.
- MSIs have become part of corporate engagement with human rights. Over 10,000 companies participate in MSIs, including 13 of the 20 world’s largest companies by revenue.
- MSIs are part of international frameworks and governance. Individual MSIs have been endorsed by international finance institutions and the UN. They are key reference points for company human rights rating agencies.
- MSIs influence public behavior and perceptions. Many consumers rely on the labels bestowed by MSIs to make ethical consumption decisions.
- Over the last few years, growing questions and concerns by those who have closely monitored or participated in MSIs have bolstered long-standing civil society criticisms of MSIs:
- A number of CSOs have withdrawn from individual MSIs over concerns about inaction, ineffectiveness, and the resources they consume.
- There are now well-documented instances in which MSIs have failed to detect or remedy human rights abuses. Complaints have been brought against multiple MSIs in OECD National Contact Points.
- The term “MSIs,” which did not have a negative connotation when it was used in the UNGPs, has become increasingly connotative of a corporate-oriented model or a model that is not focused on accountability. “Worker-driven” models have emerged and specifically contrast themselves with MSIs. Such models are growing and may displace MSIs in the medium to long term.
- There is growing recognition of the need for government regulation in a “smart mix” of tools to promote business respect for human rights, rather than an overreliance on voluntary measures. There has been a resurgence in advocacy for public regulation both domestically and internationally, on the premise that voluntary initiatives are not sufficient.
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2. Stakeholder Participation
3. Standards & Scope
4. Monitoring & Compliance