UW Today

September 6, 2016

UW law professor named to United Nations working group on business and human rights

News and Information

When law professor Anita Ramasastry began teaching at the University of Washington in 1996, she was working on an article about banks’ responsibilities around human rights, to the bemusement of her peers.

The groundbreaking piece focused on the role of Swiss banks during World War II and the dormant accounts of Holocaust victims and their heirs — unusual territory for a law professor then.

Anita Ramasastry

Anita Ramasastry

“At that time, this wasn’t a field of research and people thought it was a little bit off the map in terms of my scholarship,” she recalled.

But Ramasastry’s decades-long focus on the intersection of commerce and human rights paid off. In July, she was appointed to serve on the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights. Ramasastry will represent all of Western Europe, North America and Australia-Pacific, one of five UN regions and arguably the most competitive. She was selected out of a field of 22 applicants.

“I am honored and delighted to be appointed,” Ramasastry said. “This is a field I’ve worked in for a long time, but it feels great to be wearing a different institutional hat to try to carry this work forward.”

Ramasastry and the working group’s four other members will meet with government entities, businesses and communities to further the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights for how nations and business entities — particularly transnational corporations — can uphold human rights. The group receives reports about alleged human rights violations; engages with other UN bodies and key stakeholders from government, civil society and the private sector; and undertakes two trips annually to examine business and human rights challenges in different countries.

Formed in 2011, the working group reflects evolving views about who has responsibility for respecting human rights, Ramasastry said. That question was brought into sharp focus during the 1999 protests of the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle, when thousands took to the streets to decry the impact of globalization on human rights. The event was emblematic of a new era of thinking about the role of both corporations and governments in addressing human rights around the world.

Those issues have evolved in the ensuring years, Ramasastry said, and new ones constantly arise. Global supply chains are now a big focus for governments and human rights advocates. Ramasastry pointed to Apple’s adverse publicity over its factory operations in China, and a lawsuit filed against Costco last year for selling farmed shrimp from Thailand, where slave labor and human trafficking is common in the fishing industry. The suit was later dismissed. New questions have now arisen about what responsibilities businesses have to LGBTQ employees in different parts of the world.

“We think of governments as our watchdogs,” Ramasastry said. “But now we ask, do corporations have an obligation to deal with human rights and respect the same standards, regardless of where they are in the world? The answer is yes.”

Ramasastry succeeds Margaret Jungk, the founder and director of the Human Rights and Business Department at the Danish Institute for Human Rights, who resigned from the working group in March to take another position. Kellye Testy, dean of the UW School of Law, said Ramasastry is a “thoughtful innovator” in bridging the fields of business law and human rights.

“She is one of the most sought-after scholars and consultants in the world in this field, one that is critical to the advancement of both justice and human prosperity,” Testy said. “I could not be more pleased to see her being recognized through this distinguished appointment.”

Ramasastry previously served in the Obama administration as a senior adviser in the U.S. Department of Commerce, directing the International Trade Administration’s anti-corruption and trade efforts. In that role, she also coordinated strategies with emerging markets such as Vietnam, Colombia and South Africa, and developed a new business and human rights curriculum for U.S. trade officers in embassies worldwide.

Ramasastry has advised organizations ranging from the World Bank to Amnesty International, co-authored several seminal research studies, written many articles and reports, and won numerous accolades, including the 1998 UW Distinguished Teaching Award and the UW Outstanding Public Service Award for her work with immigrant women and children who are domestic violence victims.  She is also a founding editor in chief of the Business and Human Rights Journal, a scholarly journal published by Cambridge University Press.

On top of her UN appointment, Ramasastry, who has two children with her husband — also a UW law professor — will continue teaching a full course load at the university. It’s a challenging schedule, she admits, but she said she’s happy to be put to the task.

“I will be busy,” she said. “But this post allows me to move from theory to practice and I am excited by this challenge.”

For more information, contact Ramasastry at arama@uw.edu or 206-616-8441.

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