Today marks the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR), a milestone instrument that recognized the dignity and rights of all individuals throughout the world. The UDHR proclaimed a global call for education on these rights and for measures to make respect for these rights a reality. The OU College of Law answered this call several years ago by creating the first Center for International Business & Human Rights (@OULawIBHR) at a U.S. law school.
The field of business and human rights is relatively new. In 2011, the United Nations unanimously adopted the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), which were endorsed by the U.S. government. According to these principles, businesses are supposed to respect human rights by, among other things, adopting human rights policies based on international standards such as the UDHR, hiring international human rights experts to help companies avoid infringements of rights, and engaging in due diligence to avoid adverse impacts on human rights in the conduct of their business operations (e.g., checking their supply chains for negative human rights impacts, training security forces to respect the rights of protesters, etc.).
A 2016 survey found that, of 275 general counsels and senior counsel surveyed, 46% of businesses have human rights policies. For companies making $10 billion+ in revenue, 84% have human rights policies. Of great significance to law schools and the legal profession, the study also found that more often than not companies expect their legal teams to have the lead with respect to their corporate human rights programs.
OU Law’s Center for International Business & Human Rights has been a leader among law schools in preparing students to thrive in this new and growing field. The Center provides cutting-edge courses to train students. For example, last year Professor Evelyn Aswad’s Human Rights Practicum students conducted research for the U.S. State Department’s Business & Human Rights Unit and presented their findings directly to the Department’s officials in Washington, D.C.
Students in OU Law’s Business & Human Rights class and International Law Society last year met with practitioners in this field from companies (such as ConocoPhillips, Chevron, and Kosmos Energy), NGOs (including Access Now), the U.S. State Department, NATO, and the head of the Corporate Social Responsibility practice group at the law firm of Arent Fox.
The Center’s team is also active in engaging at the local, national, and international level on implementation of the UNGPs. For example, in the last year, Professor Aswad spoke about business and human rights issues in venues ranging from the Tulsa Committee on Foreign Relations to RightsCon, a global conference on digital rights. In coordination with the Oklahoma Bar Association’s new International Law Section, the Center’s Legal & Policy Associate Rebeca West organized continuing legal education programs for Oklahoma Bar members on business and human rights topics. Professor Aswad and Rebeca also recently participated in the UN Forum on Business & Human Rights, which is the largest gathering in the world on these issues. They met with representatives from law firms, companies, and NGOs who are working on these topics. They were delighted to see Abby Henderson (OU Law ’18), a former intern with the Center and alumna of its courses, present her research on business and human rights at the UN Forum in Geneva.
They have also been delighted by the support shown to the Center by its Advisory Board, Young Alumni Council, and Student Advisory Council.
“People are often surprised to find out that the University of Oklahoma College of Law was the first law school in the country to launch a Center in this dynamic and evolving human rights field,” reflected Professor Evelyn Aswad. “They shouldn’t be surprised; we are Sooners.”
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What led you to OU Law? I have wanted to go to law school since I was a teenager. I was active in speech contests and enjoyed making oral presentations. When I was in high school, I would go downtown and watch some of the trials at the courthouse, so, I got acquainted with the courtroom rather early. I obtained a Navy scholarship to go to OU. I was a regular Navy midshipman then I served three years in the far east before coming back to law school. I wanted to attend law school and came back to OU.