Business and human rights: A Lacuna Special Edition

This month, I edited a special issue of Lacuna Magazine on business and human rights. As I finalized the edition, I was reading about the world’s global business elite gathering in Davos for their annual get-together. They were being chastised by everyone from Theresa May and the Financial Times  to Oxfam for their “to share the gains of globalisation with its losers”. It seemed very fitting in this context that we were examining what companies are doing about their human rights responsibilities.

If you read one article from the special issue, read my interview with Kendyl Salcito. She talks about her work as a pioneer in the field of human rights and business, researching the human rights impacts of business operations in 12 countries on 4 continents.  She gives us an insight into what it means to properly examine the human rights impacts of corporate activity, and the challenges in seeking to change company behavior. She also voices her concerns that her work is the exception rather than the rule in the ‘human rights and business’ world. Kendyl fears that the United Nation’s flagship human rights initiative, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, is not helping here. She argues that “human rights due diligence [which the UN prescribes], has been so weakly defined that companies are using the term to mean whatever they want it to, diluting its value”.

Putting the edition together has made me reflect again on whether there is sufficient critical engagement with the deficiencies and limitations of initiatives like the UNGPs. And it also makes me more certain than ever that the human rights and business world should be paying more attention to the actions of inspirational individuals like Kendyl who are making change happen.

Sir Ivan Rogers’ Letter – Don’t trivialise the message on trade negotiations!

It never looks good for anyone involved when a senior civil servant’s critical resignation letter becomes public. When that man is the lead ambassador in the most toxic political negotiations in most of our life times, the reaction is bound to be polarized. Accusations and counter-accusations are currently flying around the newsrooms. Is this just sour grapes from an anti-Brexit civil servant with an axe to grind or do his views reflect genuine concern about the incoherence and naiveté of the British negotiating position?


There were two sections of the letter that caught my eye, as they reinforced existing concerns about the lack of knowledge and expertise about issues vital to the negotiating process in the British government. First there is a passage on the importance of the trade deals we make:

“Contrary to the beliefs of some, free trade does not just happen when it is not thwarted by authorities: increasing market access to other markets and consumer choice in our own, depends on the deals, multilateral, plurilateral and bilateral that we strike, and the terms that we agree.”

This seems to imply that some senior government officials/ministers are seriously underestimating the complexity of negotiating trade deals. As my post from yesterday discussed (watch the video), trade deals are not just about agreeing to reduce taxes on imports and exports (not itself easy). They are about rules of origin, quotas, subsidies, investment protection, intellectual property, sanitary standards and much, much more. And our relationship with the EU dictates the terms of trade we can then negotiate with other countries. Minsters must start to understand this complexity if they are to have any hope of having a coherent and competent negotiating position.

Sir Ivan goes on to say that “serious multilateral negotiating experience is in short supply in Whitehall.” The worry is that very complex issues are being discussed by people without a full understanding of that complexity, and they are not listening to advice from outside. Whatever the motivations of the messenger, the message needs to be taken very seriously.

Causing a scene over a £5 note

I caused a small scene today with a woman in her seventies at a Christmas Craft Fair in Leamington Spa. And its all because of the new £5 note…


I’ve been a vegetarian for 24 years. When I started out, there were often awkward social situations. Restaurants or pubs would have nothing on the menu for me. Friends would serve me chicken and then look bemused when I explained that vegetarianism extended beyond beef and lamb. I remember once trying to explain the concept to a group of elderly relatives and being told, to nods of approval all round,  “what utter nonsense”.

But times have changed. There are now millions of vegetarians in the UK. Getting good vegetarian food is easy in restaurants, supermarkets and dinners at my friends’ houses. I can buy vegetarian wine, shoes, even belts. People (at least appear to!) listen earnestly when I explain my concerns about the way animals are treated in our industrialized agricultural system.

So it was a shock last week when I read that our new £5 notes contain beef tallow. And today, doing my Christmas shopping, was the first time since I heard the news that I was confronted with one. A lady on a craft stall gave my change. And there it was, a fleshy fiver. “I am afraid I am a vegetarian” I blurted. She just looked confused. And the more I spoke, the more confused she looked. In the end I just took it.  I was beginning to feel like a mad conspiracy theorist talking about the meat in our money.

Vegetarians in the UK have complained in large numbers – a petitionagainst the new note now has more than 125,00 signatories. I read this evening that the inventor of the £5 note has called UK vegetarians ‘absolutely stupid’. The amount of tallow used in making the £5 note is apparently very small, and the new fiver may have other environmental and health benefits.* But what he doesn’t understand is that for me and others like me, the point of vegetarianism is to be able to say “not in my name”, to refuse to participate in systems of production that do not  have respect for animal life. And avoiding the use of bank notes is a little tricky….

I failed to say “not in my name” today to the new £5 note. It defeated me where the pubs, restaurants and elderly relatives of two decades ago failed. But what gives me hope is the uproar it has caused. There is the petition, the vegetarian restaurant refusing to accept new fivers, the Bank of England feeling the need to say it is “looking for solutions”.  There are no guarantees for what happens next (and I’ll be watching carefully to see what solutions appear). But if alternatives are found, then perhaps we can start looking at other products which perhaps don’t need to be made from animals either.


* I have read nothing that suggests the tallow is essential to the process, and that vegetarian alternatives could not be found. If anyone does have different information, I would be very interested to know.


Failing to Make Sense of the World on A Train Journey to Lausanne

About 10 years ago I took the decision to stop flying in Western Europe. A ‘not in my name’ gesture against climate change.  The only exception so far – best-man’s duties at a stag-do in Lisbon. Otherwise, the Man in Seat 61 and Loco have helped me find train routes to cities across Europe – from Madrid to Vienna, Florence to Zurich.  Its not a massive sacrifice. I am an academic, so time on trains can be spent profitably – reading, writing and (if needs must!) marking.

Today is a day on the train, because tomorrow I am attending the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva. This morning I left my family in London and eight hours later I am getting close to my destination.

Its a Sunday. So I decided to give the work a rest. Before I boarded my train I bought the Observer, the Economist, Time Magazine, the Spectator, Prospect and the New Statesman. My world feels upside down after the US election results last week. I wanted to get views from across the political spectrum that might help me to find myself again.

It hasn’t worked. I have read some great insider pieces from journalists who travelled round the US on the campaign trail (particularly from Zeke Miller and Phillip Elliot in Time). I have digested some interesting analysis of US voting patterns (confirming the importance of racial divides, dislike of Hilary, and the revolt of the ‘rust belt’)  . Everywhere, I have read that what happens next is pretty much impossible to predict.

At the end of my journey, I look back on Morning Me and realize the foolishness of my expectations. People are still in shock. In mourning for kinder times. And there is too much uncertainty for anything deeper and more profound. For now.

But there is one thing missing that does still shock me: No deep reflection from the intellectual elites writing in the magazines I have been reading about the pathways towards re-connecting with ordinary people. Because if there is one thing that the US election showed (as well as the UK’s Brexit vote) it is that ideas from those elites are of marginal importance in big choices people are making about their futures. And commentators in newspapers, just like academics in universities, need to start thinking about how to change that…