Douglas A. Johnson Photo

Douglas A. Johnson

Lecturer in Public Policy


One of the fastest growing areas in human rights practice is the effort to achieve full respect for international human rights law and norms by private business.  This class will address different approaches to the topic relevant to students’ decisions on how to engage in the field of business and human rights in their professional futures.

Human rights norms and treaties initially focused on government obligations to individuals to promote and protect the conditions of human dignity and development.  With the rise of the presence and power of transnational corporations, often exceeding in economic power that of nation states, demands grew from governments, civil society, and within corporations themselves that these powerful institutions and their leaders be held accountable for violations of human rights.  Three strands of activism have emerged to this end:  legal approaches that seek to both control and create level playing fields; civil society pressures, largely targeted at singular cases of corporate generated human rights abuses; and attempts at self-regulation from within the corporate community.  Occasionally all three of these actors engage on the same themes or cases, but not always with effective coordination or even shared purpose. 

The United Nations Human Rights Council adopted the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (GPs) in 2011, establishing a set of norms and guidelines to promote compliance by private business operations to the principles of universal human rights.  These GPs, developed by HKS Professor John Ruggie, seek to diffuse these norms along three pillars:  The State Duty to Protect Human Rights, The Corporate Responsibility to Respect Human Rights, and the rights of victims of abuse to Access to Remedies. This course will use the Guiding Principles as a framework for discussion and explore how their development has affected the strategies and tactics of the three strands of action to secure corporate compliance with human rights norms.  In collaboration with the Human Rights Clinic of the Harvard Law School, we will also consider the diffusion of a Fourth Pillar on the role of communities.