Last January 11th 2018, the TransJus Research Institute inaugurated a new season of discussions and seminars with a Business and Human Rights debate presented by Professor Don De Amicis from the University of Georgetown Law School (Washington D.C). The debate was held at the Sala de Professors of the Faculty of Law and hosted by the director of the TransJus Institute, Dr. Juli Ponce Solé, and one of its members, Dr. Marta Ortega, who was in charge of coordinating the event. Futhermore, this academic activity was framed in the context of research project on territoriality as a limit on State jurisdiction before non State private actors behaviours that have an impact on the effectivity of internationally recognised human rights (DER2015–67026–P).
Besides his work as a Professor at the University of Georgetown, Mr. Don De Amicis also teaches at the International Law Institute (Washington D.C) and is a member of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the Sanctions Committee of the Inter-American Development Bank. Having worked for the public and private sector as a lawyer and advisor, Prof. Don de Amicis’s outstanding curriculum focuses mainly on corporate social responsibility, corporate governance, anti-corruption and risk management.
The issue of Business & Human Rights has become a pressing matter in the recent years. As an introduction to the topic, Prof. De Amicis provided an overview of Human Rights international treaties and their corresponding bodies and mechanisms. Prof. De Amicis specifically referenced the UN Treaty System, the core ILO treaties and European treaties. Furthermore, Prof. De Amicis continued to determine the particular business-related Human Rights, which include inter alia the right to non-discrimination, the right to work, the right to social security, the right to an adequate standard of living and the right to an effective remedy for violations of human rights.
As depicted by Prof. De Amicis, the United Nations Human Rights Council endorsed the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in 2011. These principles comprise a set of non-binding guidelines for States and companies to prevent and address human rights abuses committed in business operations. Particularly, the UN Guidelines are divided into three pillars: the State Duty to Protect, the Corporate Responsibility to Respect and finally Access to Remedy. On the other hand, Prof. De Amicis mentioned the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, which contain a chapter on human rights aligned with the UN “Protect, Respect and Remedy Framework”. The OECD Guidelines are recommendations addressed by governments to multinational enterprises operating in or from adhering countries that provide non-binding standards for responsible business conduct. The recently added chapter establishes six points with regards to the enterprises’ duty to respect human rights. Interestingly, the concept of due diligence, addressed by Prof. De Amicis during the debate, is included in one of the points contained in the OECD Guidelines. This concept is described in the Guidelines as “a process that entails assessing actual and potential human rights impacts, integrating and acting upon the findings, tracking responses as well as communicating how impacts are addressed”. Added to these international initiatives, Prof. Don De Amicis made reference to the Human Centered Business Model promoted by the World Bank, the European Public Law Organization, UNIDROIT and Transjus, amongst other partners. He highlighted that Transjus has assumed the role of framing a comprehensive code of conduct of self-imposed principles for all kinds of enterprises which was presented in Washington DC at the World Bank during the Annual meeting of the Law, Justice and Development Forum. Subsequently, Prof. De Amicis focused on the regulatory initiatives undertaken by States in order to prevent Human Rights abuses by corporations. In particular, France recently passed a law on “The duty of vigilance” which imposes an obligation for corporations to conduct a “vigilance plan” in order to identify and prevent risk. Similarly, the UK has adopted the “Modern Slavery Act”, forcing corporations to report on steps in their supply chain to avoid slavery. Furthermore, Prof. De Amicis mentioned benchmarking as a means for transparency and accountability. For example, there are companies such as BankTrack, who provide assessment to other corporations in relation to risk management and prevention of human rights violations. On the other hand, companies like Corporate Human Rights Benchmark elaborate ratings and rankings of corporations on their performance against the UN Principles.
In connection with the presentation on Business and Human Rights, Prof. De Amicis initiated a conversation on artificial intelligence and Law. Specifically, Prof. De Amicis focused on the effects of artificial intelligence as a substitute for human fallibility in the work environment and technology. In that sense, Prof. De Amicis underlined that the relationship between human rights and artificial intelligence is still a subject that has to be explored although it is increasingly becoming a controversial topic.
The concepts of “big data”, “fintech” and “bitcoin” were brought up during the conversation. Interestingly, Prof. De Amicis stressed the demanding task, especially for jurists, to classify new technology concepts to further regulate them. As an example, Prof. De Amicis explained that “bitcoin” could either be placed as a method of payment, currency and a commodity. This certainly poses an exceptionally complex challenge for future legislators in the upcoming years. Furthermore, Prof.De Amicis pointed out the growing influence of “fintech” on financial corporations such as banks. Putting it in simple words, “fintech” or “financial technology” is a new financial industry that applies technology to improve financial activities. This term includes areas such as retail banking, investment and cryptocurrencies like the aforementioned “bitcoin”. In particular, Prof. De Amicis made reference to “smart contracts”, which utilize computer programs to digitally facilitate, verify or enforce the negotiation or performance of a contract. They automatically execute contracts between buyers and sellers and unlike common contracts, they are trackable and irreversible. Finally, Prof. De Amicis mentioned “Robo-advisors”; digital platforms that provide automated, algorithm-driven financial planning services with no human supervision. Their task is to offer financial advice or automatically invest its clients’ assets. The main benefit of using this type of technology is that by eliminating human labor, the costs for clients are lower. In conclusion, the consequences of artificial intelligence are indeed a cutting edge issue that will unavoidably have a strong impact on jurisprudence and legislation in the near future and will impact on human rights also.
The presentation by Prof. De Amicis was followed by a round of questions from the participants to the debate. The questions mainly revolved around the topic of Business and Human Rights and the effectiveness of the UN Guidelines and the OECD Guidelines to prevent Human Rights violations by corporations. In particular, many of the participants pointed out the fact that a big part of corporations operated in underdeveloped countries with very inadequate Human Rights legislation, incentivizing corporations to skip on their obligations. With no control from the governments of these countries over the activities of corporations, will the UN Guidelines remain empty rhetoric? In response, Prof. De Amicis pointed out that the Business and Human Rights discussion is a relatively new topic that is slowly being implemented in the codes of conduct of many corporations nowadays. On the other hand, other related issues such as climate change were also brought up during the conversation. In that sense, is it possible to include the pressing problem of climate change into the Business and Human Rights debate and eventually into any type of international guidelines for corporations? Moreover, what can national governments do in order to pressure corporations into respecting Human Rights standards?
To conclude, perhaps businesses will not be pioneers in the protection of human rights although it is crucial to find ways to pressure and incentivize corporations in order to prevent further negative impacts on communities and climate.
Chronicle by Ona Lorda Roure, Law student at the University of Barcelona. Collaborator of the TransJus Research Institute.
 UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Available: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/GuidingPrinciplesBusinessHR_EN.pdf
 Ibid, paragraph 45.
 LOI n° 2017-399 du 27 mars 2017 relative au devoir de vigilance des sociétés mères et des entreprises donneuses d’ordre: https://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/eli/loi/2017/3/27/2017-399/jo/texte
 Modern Slavery Act, UK: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2015/30/contents/enacted