Hiding in the Light: The Misuse of Disclosure to Advance the Business and Human Rights Agenda

64 Pages Posted: 31 Aug 2017 Last revised: 10 Jan 2019

See all articles by Jena Martin

Jena Martin

West Virginia University - College of Law

Date Written: August 29, 2017


In June 2017, Waitrose, a top UK supermarket, pulled its cans of corned beef off the shelves after an investigation revealed that the meat might have been produced with slave labor. At the time of the recall, Waitrose was in compliance with the UK Modern Slavery Act, a 2015 law enacted to prevent human trafficking and modern-day slavery. Under the Modern Slavery Act, corporations are required to file annual reports disclosing what action they had taken to eradicate slavery and human trafficking in their supply chains. The Modern Slavery Act was a much-lauded law that is part of the growing trend of States to move the international business and human rights agenda forward. A key component of that agenda involves disseminating the U.N.’s Protect, Respect, and Remedy Framework and implementing the U.N. Guiding Principles, which have been praised by States around the world as a framing mechanism for assessing corporate accountability for negative human rights impacts caused by a corporation’s operations and relationships with its suppliers.

This article analyzes whether the business and human rights agenda (as embodied by the Three Pillar Framework and U.N. Guiding Principles) is well served by national laws that focus on disclosure. The article focuses primarily on rules being implemented in the United States at both the subnational and national level; however, it also discusses approaches being used in European jurisdictions such as the United Kingdom and France and the overall trend towards a transparency model for human rights protection made necessary by business activities. The increased use of disclosure-based regulation (and the resulting compliance efforts by corporations) seems to come, at least in part, as a result of the efforts by States to address the duties laid out for them in the U.N. Guiding Principles. As such, it is appropriate to undertake an analysis regarding whether these laws are in fact effectively implementing the Guiding Principles.

For decades now, disclosure has been held out as the ultimate curative for almost every corporate woe. The expansion of disclosure initiatives from mere investment-related issues to (increasingly) social-policy issues suggest that this trend will continue. Yet, as this article demonstrates, disclosure right now is at best a temporary stop gap measure that can lead to limited corporate change on the issue of business and human rights. At worst, disclosure is being used by corporations as a way to obtain a reputational advantage without actually making substantive changes – by simply hiding in the light.

Keywords: business and human rights, disclosure, securities regulation, international human rights

JEL Classification: K22, K33

Suggested Citation

Martin, Jena, Hiding in the Light: The Misuse of Disclosure to Advance the Business and Human Rights Agenda (August 29, 2017). WVU College of Law Research Paper No. 2019-004, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3028826 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3028826

Jena Martin (Contact Author)

West Virginia University - College of Law ( email )

101 Law School Drive
Morgantown, WV West Virginia 26506
United States

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