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Thunderbird dean on human rights at UN Global Compact Leaders Summit 2022

Sanjeev Khagram joins more than 12,000 leaders from business, government, civil society

Portrait of Sanjeev Khagram, director general and dean of the Thunderbird School of Global Management.

Thunderbird Director General and Dean Sanjeev Khagram

June 15, 2022

Sanjeev Khagram, director general and dean of the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University, joined world leaders at the 2022 U.N. Global Compact Leaders Summit to better understand the role of business progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) outlined by the United Nations.

Under the theme “The World We Want,” this year’s sessions included topics regarding business practices through the lens of pressing issues.

Khagram, a Foundation Professor of Global Leadership and Global Political Economy, was joined by Pedro Sánchez Pérez-Castejón, the prime minister of Spain; António Guterres, United Nations secretary-general; Sanda Ojiambo, assistant secretary-general and CEO of the U.N. Global Compact; along with executive leadership of major corporations and other leaders from the United Nations, governments, civil society and the U.N. Global Compact Local Networks.

Khagram spoke with Adam Roy Gordon, SDG advocate and engagement director for the U.N. Global Compact's U.S. network, on the topic "Business, Peace, Human Rights: Reducing Inequalities in a Complex World'' and discussed the challenges facing the world today.

Editor's note: The following conversation has been transcribed from the U.N. Global Compact Leaders Summit.

Question: What is the role of business in keeping peace and safeguarding human rights from your advantage point in higher education?

Answer: Human rights and, more broadly, Sustainable Development Goals have to be at the heart of all businesses. We must put human rights and peace front and center for several different reasons, including:

  1. If there is no peace, there is not an environment where business can be successful.
  2. Supporting and enhancing human rights and the linkages between the two further legitimizes a business in society, creating a social license to operate.
  3. Businesses are citizens and are composed of citizens who care about and have deep commitments to human rights, so they are both internal and external stakeholders who expect businesses to have leadership roles when it comes to advancing peace and human rights.

Q: With recent global issues, like the pandemic and supply chain disruption, and many other changes to our world, how has that affected global peace?

A: The pandemic has only accelerated, deepened and revealed even more of these underlying tensions. We know that has led to unfortunate deaths and health issues, both physical and mental, and has contributed to increasing tensions, including greater fears, anxieties and conflicts.

At the same time, it has also made it even more imperative and more clear to businesses that they have to engage (in human rights and peace) and do so in partnership with governments, international organizations and civil societies. Human rights and peace and, more broadly, Sustainable Development Goals, are issues businesses must engage in.

The pandemic has been two-fold; on the one hand, it has exacerbated many of these issues facing humanity, societies and the planet, and climate change is an obvious one. On the other hand, it has made the call to action — and the commitment — all the greater.

Q: What lessons with regard to the Ukraine crisis can we learn about human rights and the role of business?

A: For us at Thunderbird, we have had, and now no longer have a center for business skills and development (Center of Excellence) in Moscow, Russia, where we have trained over 550,000 business specialists. And that was because there was this belief that if there were vibrant businesses, and businesses were engaging, creating and helping in sustainable economic developments, that would lead to greater support, recognition and achievement of human rights and sustainable peace.

The greatest lesson is that we need to do more. Businesses need to do more. We have to do more on the front end, and then, unfortunately, when events like the invasion of Ukraine happen, businesses play an important role.

Q: What do you see as the role of universities, and specifically business and leadership business schools, in keeping peace and protecting human rights around the world?

A: It starts first with the values that we ask our students to embrace from the day they join us. At Thunderbird, we have an Oath of Honor that our students pledge to when they come in, and upon their graduation. The three principles in that Oath of Honor, which are connected very much to the Global Compact and U.N., are:

  1. We oppose all forms of corruption and exploitation.
  2. We respect the rights and dignity of all people.
  3. We advance sustainable and ethical prosperity and peace worldwide.

The second is to ensure our values are threaded through all our programs. We have specific courses where students learn how to embrace the values and implement them to be effective decision-makers, leaders and managers.

A third is continuing education, professional education and executive education. I mentioned our center in Moscow, and we have centers all over the world, and we do this work, as do our colleagues in other business and management schools. Much like our young social innovator's program that we do (in partnership) with the U.S. network, many of our programs are about advancing these values and principles and Sustainable Development Goals for human rights.

And finally, we have to continue applied research, to support tools, capabilities and systems with innovations to advance further the role of business and the ability of business leaders in terms of human rights, peace and sustainability worldwide.

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