Going beyond the course

This post is authored by Ms. Ellie Robb, a current student on the MPhil in Public Policy (MPP), at the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge. Ms. Robb and fellow MPP student, Ms. Meaghan Malloy, are traveling to New York City to conduct their MPP work placement at the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) over late March and early April 2014.

An invaluable part of any Masters in Public Policy (MPP) is the network that you build. That network stretches from your classmates, through the faculty of the course and invited speakers, to meetings and activities beyond the course itself.

A great opportunity and example of the latter presented itself in Michaelmas term. The Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights at the UN Office in Geneva was hosting the “2013 Business and Human Rights Forum” and groups from NGOs and universities were allowed to apply. Meaghan and I were very happy to head to Geneva at the start of December to represent Cambridge Public Policy at this high-profile international event.

Monday’s session was designed as a pre-cursor to the two main days of the conference to allow delegates to network and develop a deeper understanding of the key topics. These sessions included training on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, regional discussions, and stakeholder specific engagement sessions.

Tuesday was the start of the main event and we were excited that the morning’s discussions took place in the Human Rights Council. The room, used by member states to hold tough human rights discussions, has a beautiful ceiling painting by Spanish artist, Miquel Barceló. It was great to sit beneath the famous art piece whilst listening to the morning’s session; the whole experience offering insight into what a future career in human rights may entail.

There was a range of speakers from international organisations, businesses, NGOs, governments and the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights. A highlight was the keynote speech by Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, Professor of Economics at Columbia University. He spoke about the broader global economy, and how increasing inequality, labour market imbalances and economic paradigms contribute to human rights in business issues and trends. He pointed to the disingenuous attitude of businesses and the need for them to recognise that good CSR can improve their performance.

The morning was followed by sessions on a range of key thematic topics in relation to business and human rights, including non-judicial remedy for human rights abuses, responsible supply chain management, barriers to judicial remedy and human rights in the digital domain. There was a drinks reception in the evening in a bar with amazing views over lake Geneva, which was a great opportunity to meet people who were working for and around the UN.

The conference ended with closing remarks from a range of speakers. A particular highlight was Mary Robinson, an inspirational human rights leader. She talked about how the UN has raised the profile of business and human rights through the introduction of the Guiding Principles, but how business related abuses of human rights are still  ‘all too common’.  She discussed the moral imperative to integrate human rights, climate change and development in business operations and the need to further develop the political will to deliver these commitments. Chairperson of the UN Working Group, Ms. Alexandra Guaqueta, ended the conference by outlining key learning points that emerged in the prior days and how the business and human rights agenda could be strengthened in the next year and beyond. The key next steps discussed included developing national action plans, strengthening the regional responses, and creating a global training fund addressing business and human rights issues.

We flew home inspired by the prior days’ events and energized to carry on with our public policy studies with a focus on these topics. As part of the MPP we are carrying out a project with YouGov to conduct a national poll on UK attitudes towards business and human rights issues.  To cap our work in this area both Meaghan and I are very excited that we have secured our MPP work placements with the UN Global Compact in New York.  It will be a challenging and rewarding next six months.

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