This past spring, more than 70 people gathered to celebrate the launch of the Institute for Multi-Stakeholder Initiative Integrity (MSI Integrity), a business and human rights organization founded by Clinic alumna Amelia Evans, LLM ’11. It was a momentous occasion: MSI Integrity is one of the first non-profits to come out of the Clinical and Pro-Bono Program at Harvard Law School (HLS). In her comments, HLS Dean Martha Minow described its mission as both essential and exciting.

Recently, we sat down with Amelia to talk about the origins of MSI Integrity, and where it fits into the landscape of business and human rights.

Congratulations on the launch, Amelia. Before we start talking about the work of the organization, tell me a bit about how you get interested in the field of business and human rights in the first place.

From left: Amelia Evans, LLM '11, Tyler Giannini, and Dean Martha Minow, celebrating the launch of the Institute for Multi-Stakeholder Integrity.
From left: Amelia Evans, LLM ’11, Tyler Giannini, and Dean Martha Minow, celebrating the launch of the Institute for Multi-Stakeholder Integrity.

Well, back in New Zealand, I was occupying two different worlds — I had dabbled in investment banking and commercial law, but was also an advocate at a domestic violence shelter. I felt really alienated from both of these spaces. At the firms, I felt that everybody was judging me for being part of a feminist collective, and when I was a participant in the collective, everyone was very skeptical of my commercial interests. It was frustrating that these two worlds just couldn’t be bridged, that they didn’t speak to each other in any way. At some point, I realized that the connection between the two was business and human rights, and I wanted to learn more about that.

Through my research, I saw the work that Tyler Giannini had done, so I applied to Harvard Law School hoping to work with him in the Clinic. Clinical education isn’t something that’s offered in New Zealand, and I was very eager to experience it. As soon as I got into HLS, I emailed Tyler to ask about getting involved in the Clinic in the fall, and he told me there were limited spots for LLMs. So I spent a lot of time crafting my application, and once I got in, I just tried to devote as many hours and credits to it as I could. I’m fairly certain no one could have taken more clinical credits than I did….I just loved it so much.

What kind of work did you do in the Clinic?

I was involved in three different business and human rights projects. One was the Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. case, at the appellate level, with the legal historians’ amicus brief. The second was a corporate accountability case looking at remediation for survivors of human rights abuses. And the third was about multi-stakeholder initiatives or MSIs, which are these voluntary organizations that address human rights concerns within a given industry. Basically, they bring together different actors—civil society, government, rights holders, and businesses themselves—in an attempt to strengthen human rights within that industry.

The goal of our clinical project was to understand how effective these MSIs were, and to do that by creating ways to evaluate that effectiveness from a human rights perspective.

Why the focus on MSIs?

They’ve become a go-to mechanism for corporate accountability given the governance gap that exists in today’s globalized economy. It’s really difficult to get a treaty developed, or to get legislation passed that applies with extraterritorial effect, so the response has often been, “Let’s try to do something voluntarily.”

Enter MSIs. They’ve exploded in number over the past decade. Name a major global industry, name a geographic area, name a human rights issue, and there’s an MSI that applies. Most consumers have never heard of them, but the fact is that we interact with the work of MSIs on a regular basis. The label that says it’s fair trade, the certification of diamonds as conflict or blood-free — this is all the work of MSIs.

In the Clinic, we saw MSIs as an innovative way to get at business and human rights issues. But the questions were: are they working? Are they leading to improved human rights outcomes? Or are they actually, in some ways, stopping improvement in human rights?

So you created a non-profit organization to answer that question.

Well, no—when we started, the intention was not to start an organization. The intention was just to better understand what these initiatives were, and whether they were effective, by developing a set of tools that would measure that. But through the Clinic, I went down to D.C. to vet the first tool we had developed, and in discussions with individuals from the World Bank to Human Rights Watch to Oxfam to the Department of State, everybody was so supportive of the tool. They also felt that the tool needed to be more than a standalone thing—that it needed an independent, credible organization to run it and produce independent, credible evaluations of these initiatives. So that’s what I’ve been working on for the past couple of years, ever since I graduated from HLS.

I’ve had loads of support from Tyler, and from dozens of students. If students hadn’t continued to be involved in the way that they have, I just don’t think that MSI Integrity ever would have gotten off the ground.

We’ve had maybe 17 students from the Clinic working on this over the course of almost three years—some for a semester at a time, and three or four others who have just worked on this consistently once they entered the Clinic. We’ve had HLS Advocates working on the project, and volunteers from the LLM and SJD programs, as well as students from Harvard College. It was great to see so many students at the launch of the organization last month. It really felt like a team effort.

So tell me a bit about the work you’ve done so far.

So far, we’ve looked closely at five MSIs: the Fair Labor Association, the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative, the Kimberley Process, the Common Code for the Coffee Community, and the Global Network Initiative. Some are better known than others. When Apple faced a backlash about working conditions at the factories it uses in China, for example, it joined the Fair Labor Association, and there was a fair bit of publicity about it. Others, like the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative, operate below the radar for most consumers.

And how are you evaluating them?

We have developed a set of core minimum standards that we believe are necessary for MSIs to have if they are going to have a human rights impact. These minimum standards fall into seven categories: standards, internal governance, transparency, level of affected community involvement, capacity to evolve, implementation and the scope of the human rights mandate.

Right now, we’re in the middle of a global consultation process where we’re seeking input to make sure these minimum standards and our evaluation methodology are robust. We’re trying to ensure that the processes we’re developing and the questions we’re asking are actually the appropriate ones for understanding whether or not an initiative can be effective.

Can you give me an example of a standard generated by an MSI that looks good on paper but may not be as helpful or effective as it seems?

So sometimes an initiative will have a set of standards for its member companies to meet, and it mandates independent monitoring to check whether that happens. Seems great. But when you actually try to understand whether the monitoring gets to whether those standards are being met, things become really complex. Is the monitoring all done from a desk, where someone just sends documentation over? Or are they actually going on site and talking with the affected communities—the workers, the people who live around a particular site. And if they’re doing that, are they ensuring that there is protection to ensure that there are no reprisals for people speaking freely? What’s the level of experience and skill sets and understanding of local culture of the people who do go into those spaces? Are they able to communicate effectively? Are they speaking just to managers? Are they getting full access? Are the visits announced or unannounced? How long are they going in for? All of these things suddenly become really important in terms of judging whether an MSI may be capable of having a positive impact on human rights or not.

How is MSI Integrity positioning itself in the world of business and human rights? Do you see yourself as a watchdog organization?

Our approach is to try to balance independence, rigor and human rights accountability with the desire to be consultative and collaborative with MSIs. It’s an approach we are still working to get right, which is a part of the consultation. If there are MSIs out there that appear to be doing a really great job of protecting human rights, then we want to promote those efforts and encourage other initiatives to perform that way too. If there are MSIs out there that aren’t so effective, if they’re blocking or not advancing the protection of human rights, or parts of their design are problematic, then we want to call that to attention too.

For the first five reports, we picked the MSIs we wanted to evaluate and ran the initial evaluation tool based on publicly available information. Because our methodology is really about engaging with individual MSIs, we let them know several months in advance that we’re coming to the close of an evaluation. We then give them an advance draft copy report and four weeks in which they can officially comment on that report. We’re asking them to make sure we got things right; give us a sense of whether what we’re saying makes sense or is relevant to their industry; and come back to us.

In some cases, that’s gone from a four week process to a four month process, as we really try to get this right and engage the MSI to encourage reform internally. Many of these initiatives have been around for well over a decade now, and it’s tough for there to be some critical thinking about how it is they can improve.

That said, MSIs have the potential to be powerful human rights instruments. The work we’re doing will hopefully strengthen these initiatives and ensure that they are meeting their critical obligation to protect and promote human rights.