What would happen if the global business world understood that taking an ethical stand for the fair treatment of people can result in financial prosperity? What if those who influence the economy had access to information proving that the maltreatment of individuals is not actually profitable, and were then empowered to lead the way to change?
What if, in addition to the compassionate case, there was also a research-based business case to be made for human rights?
Rob Hanlon, associate professor of political studies, has been teaching classes and conducting research at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, British Columbia since 2013. Through his long-term commitment to the work of engaging the business community in human rights, Hanlon is now furthering the progress of his field of ongoing research in some of the most exclusive dialogues concerning human rights in the world.
“The business community is part of the wider community and human rights aren’t an isolated matter in the political world. There’s a role for business to play in human rights and businesses should be excited about how they can change human security through corporate responsibility.”
After completing his Political Science degree, studying and teaching language in Taiwan and studying Peace and Conflict Resolution at the University of Brisbane, Hanlon moved to Hong Kong. There he began his multi-disciplined work for both the Asian Human Rights Commission and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.
It was during this time that Hanlon began to see themes and links between corruption and human rights abuses in developing states, which became a primary area focus for his research. Hanlon’s desire to further understanding for human rights problems in relation to the business community began to narrow as the realities of individual lives hit home through his personal experiences.
“When you meet people who have been tortured and hear about the violation of their human rights you realize, coming from Canada, how privileged you are,” Hanlon explains. “That time changed my view of the private sector in relation to human rights. Seeing how that sector tried to navigate environments where there were human rights violations without actually knowing what to do about it was very eye-opening. It occurred to me that a business executive might not have the tools to know how to translate their concern for human rights into real solutions.”
The stories of human rights violations that Hanlon bore witness to while seeing the fear and vulnerability that people lived in every day changed the trajectory of his career. “Those experiences made me pursue my PhD because I was so mad that there was no clear solution to the problem. We need to expand the conversation around marginalized and vulnerable populations and how they’ve been excluded from the resources and rights that would allow them to flourish. If we take a victim’s approach to how communities and individuals are exercising deprivation, we can begin to develop freedom from fear and want. That time was when I began to realize that there’s a business case for human rights and a bridge needs to be built in order to facilitate the communication that is needed to solve these problems.”
In order to begin contributing to the building of that bridge, Hanlon started conducting research for his Corruption and Bribery PhD at City University of Hong Kong. His dissertation, a comparative case study titled Corporate Responsibility in Asia which examined the effects of bribery in the corporate sector on human rights, set the stage for his future research.
The pivotal work of Hanlon’s dissertation has led to other important published works, including his co-authored textbook Freedom from Fear, Freedom from Want: an introduction to human security, which has now been given the profound honour of being placed on the United Nations Human Security Unit reading list (I.e. recommended reading for UN staff tasked with understanding human security worldwide).
Hanlon’s interest in the political dynamics of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and how multinational business actors behave in emerging economies has also led him to his current engagement in three major research projects, the first being a book that is soon to be completed based on his studies of the maltreatment of individuals. This newest work will look closely at the politics of CSR in China and how it is being weaponized by foreign states to counter rising competitors.
Simultaneously, Hanlon is examining the role of extremism in Bangladesh and how it is connected to the garment sector’s fueling of economic insecurity which is leading to political extremism. The paper resulting from that research will be presented at the annual industry-wide conference for the International Political Science Association in Portugal. There Hanlon has also been invited to participate as an expert panelist on corporate responsibility in a discussion around rising political extremism.
Thirdly, Hanlon is currently a Principal Investigator leading a research project which is part of a tri-university grant at TRU for a consortium on the Canada and Asia Pacific Policy Project. This project is bringing together some of the most influential leaders in the discipline for a symposium, including a workshop at TRU where papers will be presented by departments from universities across the province. This gathering of minds will hopefully result in a special edition of a published journal in addition to the guaranteed progress that will be made in the field.
Opportunities like the ones Hanlon is participating in through his work and research bring extraordinary profile and exposure to Thompson Rivers University. Leaders in this area of focus are coming together for the first time on the TRU campus, which is becoming known as a hub for this kind of collaborative research.
“We are planning to have some of the most influential Directors of Asia-focused Research Centres in the province come together for the first time for this work, and it’s happening at TRU – that’s a big deal,” says Hanlon. “We’re building toward an Asia Pacific Policy for British Columbia by looking at multiple research clusters that highlight the inter-disciplinary expertise and specializations of the faculties of the universities. This is something brand new and these leaders are coming together at TRU to do it.”
TRU is also a particularly apt fit for Hanlon as British Columbia holds a key place in the world as the Asia Pacific Gateway, providing an opportunity to make a major contribution to the burgeoning strategy for the rise of Asian economics and the challenges they pose.
The research and development Hanlon is doing at TRU will help to facilitate that world-influencing work, making the university a major player on the international stage.
“The role we have to play in the world, and specifically in Asia relations, is very important,” Hanlon explains. “Issues like Canada not having a long-term China or Asia strategy — BC is uniquely positioned to help develop that, but the research needs to be done in order to create a plan that will be effective. We need to look at non-politically sensitive areas of cooperation and start there so that we can build trust, clear rules and messaging will reduce confusion and relationship breakdown, but that requires an informed approach.”
“If I could conduct my ‘dream project’ it would be an Asia Research Centre for Dialogue,” envisions Hanlon. “It would look at how small cities and interior provinces respond to a global, rising Asia. Discussion is so focused on the big cities that the ideas and narrative around the smaller institutions is lost. We need a space where there can be more dialogue outside of large, traditional research institutions, because without that we have significant blind spots. A place like TRU can really fill those gaps that everyone else might miss.”
Hanlon’s research has created a unique niche that offers new perspective through his work of combining the disciplines of business and compassion, opening an important window to critical work that requires further exploration.
“It is vital that we continuously build connections between private sector and civil society if we want to build a deeper understanding of how we can better connect in the world,” says Hanlon. “Connecting people through research is powerful and having empathy and understanding is how we will begin to examine why many people are forced into situations beyond their control.”
Hanlon’s work of putting human security at the centre of complex matters has begun to help the research world understand how the real stories of people ultimately highlight the fact that we all have more similarities than we do differences, and how that understanding should pave the way to solid policy.
“We’re all working toward an end goal of making our communities better,” concludes Hanlon. “From individuals to the business world, we all play a role in that. I believe in the value of the research I do; everyone that works in research in our department is here for the love of knowledge and because we understand that our small contribution can make a difference.”