In some countries, multinational corporations have more power and resources than national governments. The same may be true for some local business magnates. Yet even when they are in positions of strong economic and political advantage, no enterprises escape a formal obligation to respect the national laws of countries where they operate. What happens, though, if the laws in question are weak, or courts incapable of enforcement? And what duties does a corporation bear if the government does not assert legal protection for workers or crack down on environmental conditions that threaten public health?
Corporate activities touch on a wide range of human rights concerns, and the questions above shape a contemporary policy debate about the role and responsibility of corporations to uphold human rights standards. While the discussion is often pursued under the rubric of corporate social responsibility, human rights advocates prefer to speak of corporate accountability. The issue is not merely a semantic one.
- The concept of corporate social responsibility generally refers to voluntary actions – gestures undertaken by a corporation to demonstrate that it is a good citizen, contributing to the welfare of the community in which it operates.
- The term corporate responsibility projects a voluntary willingness to contribute to society and human welfare. Corporate accountability, on the other hand, connotes formal duties and obligations, and eventually liabilities. A corporate accountability approach positions corporations as “duty-bearers” within a human rights framework.
As Chris Avery notes, discussion about the human rights responsibilities and duties of corporations has been actively pursued within the United Nations over the past decade or more, both within the former UN Sub-Commission on the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights (1998-2004) and through the offices of a Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on Business and Human Rights (2005-2011). In 2008, the Special Representative proposed a three-pronged Protect-Respect-Remedy approach to business and human rights,
- reaffirming the state’s duty to protect against human rights abuse by third parties;
- emphasizing corporations’ responsibility to respect human rights and comply with all applicable laws; and
- asserting that remedies must be available when rights have been breached.
The Protect-Respect-Remedy framework was adopted by the UN Human Rights Council and today serves as the principal international policy framework for issues related to Business and Human Rights. In 2011, the Council created a UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights with a three-year mandate to implement and disseminate the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
While human rights NGOs did not originate either the SubCommission initiative or the Special Representative apparatus, they have lobbied for attention to the issue of business and human rights and have actively participated in discussions and consultations about standard setting and development of the Guiding Principles. Along a separate track, some have been involved efforts to secure legal remedies–and strengthen the normative framework–by filing suits where violations have been most egregious. The Unocal case (1996-2005) is the best known of these. In 1996 a group of Burmese villagers, represented by EarthRights, charged that Unocal was complicit in abuses that they suffered by Myanmar (Burmese) military – including forced labor, murder, and rape in conjunction with the construction of Unocal’s pipeline project. In 2005 Unocal agreed to settle the claims in Doe v. Unocal and compensate the villagers.
For more information:
Chris Avery, Founder and Director of the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, discusses the human rights responsibilities and duties of corporations in his personal narrative, “The Development of Arguments for the Accountability of Corporations for Human Rights Abuses.”
International Standards — Treaties and Other Human Rights Instruments
- Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Guiding Principles for Implementation of the “Respect, Protect, Remedy” Framework, 2011.
Mechanisms for Implementation of Legal Standards and International Policy
- A description of UN initiatives related to Business and Human Rights can be found at the Global Compact website, including information about the Business and Human Rights Working Group and the Guiding Principles for Implementation of the “Respect, Protect, Remedy” Framework.
Reports and Policy Analysis by NGOs, IGOs, Policy Centers and Governments
- International Council on Human Rights Policy. “Beyond Voluntarism: Human Rights and the Developing International Legal Obligations of Companies.” Geneva, 2002. (Note: See extensive bibliography).
- Bendell, Jem. “Barricades and Boardrooms: A Contemporary History of the Corporate Accountability Movement.” UN Research institute for Social Development Paper No. 13 (2004).
On advocacy and standard-setting work
- Chandler, Sir Geoffrey. “The Amnesty International UK Business Group.” Journal of Corporate Citizenship. Issue 33 (2009): 29-34.
- Chandler, Sir Geoffrey. “Companies and Human Rights.” 2001. (Note: Commentary prepared for colleagues by Sir Geoffrey Chandler, Chair, Amnesty International UK Business Group 1991-2001, and a former senior executive of the Royal Dutch/Shell Group, after attending the March 2001 workshop in Geneva on the draft United Nations Human Rights Guidelines for Companies.)
- Ruggie, John. Just Business: Multinationals and Human Rights.
Norton Books, 2013.
- Weissbrodt, David. “Business and Human Rights.” University of Cincinnati Law Review, 74 (2005): 55-73.
On the concept of corporate accountability
- Kaleck, Wolfgang and Miriam Sage Maass. “Corporate Accountability for Human Rights Violations Amounting to International Crimes: The Status Quo and its Challenges.” Journal of International Criminal Justice 8, Issue 3 (2010) :699-724.
- Valor, Carmen. “Corporate Social Responsibility and Corporate Citizenship: Towards Corporate Accountability.” Business and Society Review, 110 (Issue 2, June 2005): 191-212.
- Weissbrod, Davidt and Muria Kruger. “Norms on the Responsibility of Transnational Corporations and other Business Enterprises with regard to Human Rights.” American Journal of International Law 97, Issue 4 (2003): 901-922.
Advocacy Groups and Training Tools
- Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), London. (Note: A comprehensive resource about Business and Human Rights, including information about UN mechanisms; legal case material, breaking news and other resources.)
- Doe v. Unocal. 248 F.3d 915. 9th Cir. 2001. (Note: For context, see here.)
- Up-to-date information about additional cases can be found at the Legal Portal on the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre website.
- Entine, Jon. Seeds of NGO Activism: Shell Capitulates in Saro-Wiwa Case. American Enterprise Institute Blog, 2009.
Multimedia Sources, including Film
- Blood Diamond. Directed by Edward Zwick. 2006; Warner Bros.
- The Constant Gardener. Directed by Fernando Meirelles. 2005; Universal.
- Silkwood Directed by Mike Nichols. 1983; ABC Motion Pictures.
- Democracy Now. “As Bangladesh Toll Hits 400, Calls Grow to Grant Workers the Same Protection as Labels They Make.”