Business and Human rights
Generally, a company is a form of business organization. Company’s law (or the law of business associations) is the field of law concerning business and other organizations. This includes corporations, partnerships and other associations which usually carry on some form of economic or charitable activity. The most prominent kind of company, usually referred to as a “corporation”, is a “juristic person“, i.e. it has separate legal personality, and those who invest money into the business have limited liability for any losses the company makes, governed by corporate law. The largest companies are usually publicly listed on stock exchanges around the world, while private companies choose who their shareholders are. The defining feature of the corporation is that shareholders own the sole rights to vote under the company constitution and to appoint the directors who control the company. Companies known as partnerships have a different system of voting, whereby the partners own and vote for who controls the company. Partners may or may not limit their liability for company losses, although this is increasingly popular. Even single individuals, also known as sole traders may incorporate themselves and limit their liability in order to carry on a business. All different forms of companies depend on the particular law of the particular country in which they reside.
“Company” means a company formed and registered under this Act or an existing company;
Business (also called firm or an enterprise) is a legally recognized organizational entity designed to provide goods and/or services to consumers or corporate entities such as governments, charities or other businesses. Businesses are predominant in capitalist economies, most being privately owned and formed to earn profit to increase the wealth of owners. The owners and operators of a business have as one of their main objectives the receipt or generation of afinancial return in exchange for work and acceptance of risk. Notable exceptions include cooperative businesses and state-owned enterprises. Socialistic systems involve government, public, or worker ownership of most sizable businesses.
Human rights refer to the “basic rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled. Examples of rights and freedoms which are often thought of as human rights include civil and political rights, such as the right to life and liberty, freedom of expression, and equality before the law; and social, cultural and economic rights, including the right to participate in culture, the right to food, the right to work, right to business, and the right to education.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Business is one of the fundamental rights which are recognized by Article 40 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh<href=”#_ftn1″ name=”_ftnref1″ title=””>.
Business and Human Rights:
Provides an analysis of the relationship between companies and human rights in the context of globalisation. The analysis is in two parts. The first maps the reasons (financial, ethical, and regulatory) why human rights have become a business issue. However, simply because there are reasons why companies should be concerned about human rights, this does not say what companies should or could do. Therefore, the second part of the book looks at the practical experiences of companies in responding to specific human rights issues in the context of their own operations, in their supply chains and in specific countries. These case studies, many of which have not been previously published or analysed from the perspective of human rights, provide important insights into questions such as: How do companies organise themselves to respond to human rights challenges? What have the experiences been-positive and negative? How have companies responded to specific situations? What are the roles and responsibilities of other actors: government, trade unions, NGOs? What are the limits to responsibility?
In this outstanding collection, Rory Sullivan has drawn together leading thinkers and actors from the debate on business and human rights, to establish how far the business and human rights debate has evolved, and explore the many complex questions around roles, responsibilities and solutions that remain to be answered.<href=”#_ftn2″ name=”_ftnref2″ title=””>
Overview of Business:
There is no magic in the marketplace. Markets function efficiently and sustainably only when certain institutional parameters are in place. The preconditions for success are generally assumed to include the protection of property rights; the enforceability of contracts; competition; and the smooth flow of information. But a key requisite is often overlooked: curtailing individual and social harms imposed by markets. History demonstrates that without adequate institutional underpinnings, markets will fail to deliver their full benefits and may even become socially unsustainable.<href=”#_ftn3″ name=”_ftnref3″ title=””>
In recent decades, especially the 1990s, global markets expanded significantly as a result of trade agreements, bilateral investment treaties, and domestic liberalization and privatization. The rights of transnational corporations became more securely anchored in national laws and increasingly defended through compulsory arbitration before international tribunals. Globalization has contributed to impressive poverty reduction in major emerging market countries and overall welfare in the industrialized world. But it also imposes costs on people and communities – including corporate-related human rights abuses, for reasons detailed in the interim report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General.<href=”#_ftn4″ name=”_ftnref4″ title=””>
These are challenges posed not only by transnational corporations and private enterprises. Evidence suggests that firms operating in only one country and State-owned companies are often worse offenders than their highly visible private sector transnational counterparts. Clearly, a more fundamental institutional misalignment is present: between the scope and impact of economic forces and actors, on the one hand, and the capacity of societies to manage their adverse consequences, on the other. This misalignment creates the permissive environment within which blameworthy acts by corporations may occur without adequate sanctioning or reparation. For the sake of the victims of abuse, and to sustain globalization as a positive force, this must be fixed.
Realigning the relationships among social institutions is a long-term process. While Governments representing the public interest must play a key role, they need to be joined by other social actors and to utilize other social institutions to achieve this goal, including market mechanisms themselves. The Commission on Human Rights recognized the scope and complexity of the challenge when it established this multifaceted mandate.
The mandate requires the Special Representative to “identify and clarify”, to “research” and “elaborate upon”, and to “compile” materials – in short, to provide a comprehensive mapping of current international standards and practices regarding business and human rights. Resolution 2005/69 also invites him to submit his “views and recommendations” for consideration by the Commission. This mandate was extended pursuant to Human Rights Council decision 1/102. This report is devoted to the first task: mapping evolving standards, practices, gaps and trends.
The report is organized into five clusters of standards and practices governing corporate “responsibility” (the legal, social, or moral obligations imposed on companies) and “accountability” (the mechanisms holding them to these obligations). For ease of presentation, the five are laid out along a continuum, starting with the most deeply rooted international legal obligations, and ending with voluntary business standards. A brief discussion of trends and gaps concludes the report. The clusters are:
State duty to protect
1. Corporate responsibility and accountability for international crimes
2. Corporate responsibility for other human rights violations under international law
3. Soft law mechanisms
This report draws on some two dozen research papers produced by or for the Special Representative.<href=”#_ftn5″ name=”_ftnref5″ title=””> He has also benefited from three regional multi-stakeholder consultations in Johannesburg, Bangkok and Bogotá; civil society consultations on five continents; visits to the operations of firms in four industry sectors in developing countries; four legal expert workshops; two multi-stakeholder consultations on the extractive and financial services industries; and discussions with representatives of all relevant multilateral institutions and some government officials.<href=”#_ftn6″ name=”_ftnref6″ title=””>
The addenda to this report (A/HRC/4/35/Add.1-4) provide greater detail on some of the issues posed in resolution 2005/69. A companion report (A/HRC/4/74) addresses the important subject of human rights impact assessments (HRIAs), as requested in paragraph 1 (d) of resolution 2005/69.
Because the Special Representative has had fewer than 18 months to pursue this mandate, the job is not yet completed. For instance, research to date on “corporate spheres of influence” (paragraph 1 (c) of resolution 2005/69) suggests only that it lacks legal meaning; further work is required to see if it can become a useful policy tool. More importantly, because factual claims about corporate obligations in the prior debate were so entangled with normative preferences and institutional interests, the Special Representative has focused on producing a solid and objective evidentiary foundation. However, this has afforded him little opportunity to develop the “views and recommendations” he was invited to submit and which should rightly form part of the conclusion of this mandate. Therefore, the Special Representative would welcome the opportunity of an additional year to build on the extensive work already done and to submit clear options and proposals for the Council’s consideration.
State duty to protect business:
Many claims about business and human rights are deeply contested. But international law firmly establishes that States have a duty to protect against non-State human rights abuses within their jurisdiction, and that this duty extends to protection against abuses by business entities.<href=”#_ftn7″ name=”_ftnref7″ title=””> The duty to protect exists under the core United Nations human rights treaties as elaborated by the treaty bodies, and is also generally agreed to exist under customary international law.<href=”#_ftn8″ name=”_ftnref8″ title=””> Moreover, the treaty bodies unanimously affirm that this duty requires steps by States to regulate and adjudicate abuses by all social actors including businesses.<href=”#_ftn9″ name=”_ftnref9″ title=””>
The earlier United Nations human rights treaties, such as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), do not specifically address State duties regarding business. They impose generalized obligations to ensure the enjoyment of rights and prevent non-State abuse. Thus, ICERD requires each State party to prohibit racial discrimination by “any persons, group or organization” (art. 2.1 (d)). And some of the treaties recognize rights that are particularly relevant in business contexts, including rights related to employment, health and indigenous communities.
Beginning with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), adopted in 1979, and including the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the recently adopted Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, business is addressed more directly. CEDAW, for example, requires States to take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women by any “enterprise” (art. 2 (e)), and in the context of “bank loans, mortgages and other forms of financial credit” (art. 13 (b)). The treaties generally give States discretion regarding the modalities for regulating and adjudicating non-State abuses, but emphasize legislation and judicial remedies.
The treaty bodies elaborate upon the duty to protect. General comment No. 31 of the Human Rights Committee (HRC) is one recent example. It confirms that under the ICCPR “the positive obligations on States parties to ensure Covenant rights will only be fully discharged if individuals are protected by the State, not just against violations of Covenant rights by its agents, but also against acts committed by private persons or entities”.<href=”#_ftn10″ name=”_ftnref10″ title=””> It further explains that States could breach Covenant obligations where they permit or fail “to take appropriate measures or to exercise due diligence to prevent, punish, investigate or redress the harm caused by such acts by private persons or entities”.
The human rights treaty bodies express concern about State failure to protect against business abuse most frequently in relation to the right to non-discrimination, indigenous peoples’ rights, and labour and health-related rights. But the duty to protect applies to all substantive rights. The Committees tend not to specify the precise content of required State action, but generally recommend regulation through legislation and adjudication through judicial remedies, including compensation where appropriate.
Current guidance from the Committees suggests that the treaties do not require States to exercise extraterritorial jurisdiction over business abuse. But nor are they prohibited from doing so.<href=”#_ftn11″ name=”_ftnref11″ title=””> International law permits a State to exercise such jurisdiction provided there is a recognized basis: where the actor or victim is a national, where the acts have substantial adverse effects on the State, or where specific international crimes are involved.<href=”#_ftn12″ name=”_ftnref12″ title=””> Extraterritorial jurisdiction must also meet an overall “reasonableness” test, which includes non-intervention in the internal affairs of other States.<href=”#_ftn13″ name=”_ftnref13″ title=””> Debate continues over precisely when the protection of human rights justifies extraterritorial jurisdiction.
The regional human rights systems also affirm the State duty to protect against non-State abuse, and establish similar correlative State requirements to regulate and adjudicate corporate acts.<href=”#_ftn14″ name=”_ftnref14″ title=””> Indeed, the increasing focus on protection against corporate abuse by the United Nations treaty bodies and regional mechanisms indicates growing concern that States either do not fully understand or are not always able or willing to fulfill this duty.
The responses to the questionnaire survey addressed to States by the Special Representative, asking them to identify policies and practices by which they regulate, adjudicate, and otherwise influence corporate actions in relation to human rights, reinforce those concerns.<href=”#_ftn15″ name=”_ftnref15″ title=””> No robust conclusions can be drawn because of the low response rate. But of those States responding, very few report having policies, programmers or tools designed specifically to deal with corporate human rights challenges. A larger number say they rely on the framework of corporate responsibility initiatives, including such soft law instruments as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, or voluntary initiatives like the United Nations Global Compact. Very few explicitly consider human rights criteria in their export credit and investment promotion policies or in bilateral trade and investment treaties, points at which government policies and global business operations most closely intersect.<href=”#_ftn16″ name=”_ftnref16″ title=””>
In sum, the State duty to protect against non-State abuses is part of the very foundation of the international human rights regime. The duty requires States to play a key role in regulating and adjudicating abuse by business enterprises or risk breaching their international obligations.
2.4 Relation between business and international law:
However, States are not the only duty bearers under international law.<href=”#_ftn17″ name=”_ftnref17″ title=””> Individuals have long been subject to direct responsibility for the international crimes of piracy and slavery, although in the absence of international accountability mechanisms they could be held liable only by national legal systems. The International Military Tribunals established after the Second World War confirmed that individuals bear responsibility for crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, and also imposed accountability on those within their jurisdiction, including corporate officers. With the entry into force of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2002, a permanent forum now exists in which individuals can be held directly accountable for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes if States parties fail to act.<href=”#_ftn18″ name=”_ftnref18″ title=””>
Long-standing doctrinal arguments over whether corporations could be “subjects” of international law, which impeded conceptual thinking on this issue and the attribution of direct legal responsibility to corporations, are yielding to new realities. Corporations are increasingly recognized as “participants” at the international level, with the capacity to bear some rights and duties under international law.<href=”#_ftn19″ name=”_ftnref19″ title=””> As noted, they have certain rights under bilateral investment treaties; they are also subject to duties under several civil liability conventions dealing with environmental pollution. Although this has no direct bearing on corporate responsibility for international crimes, it makes it more difficult to maintain that corporations should be entirely exempt from responsibility in other areas of international law.
The ICC preparatory committee and the Rome conference on the establishment of the ICC debated a proposal that would have given the ICC jurisdiction over legal persons (other than States), but differences in national approaches prevented its adoption. Nevertheless, just as the absence of an international accountability mechanism did not preclude individual responsibility for international crimes in the past, it does not preclude the emergence of corporate responsibility today.
Indeed, corporate responsibility is being shaped through the interplay of two developments: one is the expansion and refinement of individual responsibility by the international ad hoc criminal tribunals and the ICC Statute; the other is the extension of responsibility for international crimes to corporations under domestic law. The complex interaction between the two is creating an expanding web of potential corporate liability for international crimes, imposed through national courts.
Individual responsibility under international law may arise by directly committing or instigating a crime, or for crimes committed by subordinates that a superior had reason to know would be committed, but failed to prevent. The international tribunals have also imposed liability for “aiding and abetting” a crime, or for engaging in a “common purpose” or “joint criminal enterprise”.<href=”#_ftn20″ name=”_ftnref20″ title=””> No one-to-one mapping can be assumed between standards for natural and legal persons. But national courts interpreting corporate liability for international crimes have drawn on principles of individual responsibility, as the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit did in its Unocal ruling.<href=”#_ftn21″ name=”_ftnref21″ title=””>
At the same time, the number of jurisdictions in which charges for international crimes can be brought against corporations is increasing, as countries ratify the ICC Statute and incorporate its definitions into domestic law. Where national legal systems already provide for criminal punishment of companies the international standards for individuals may be extended, thereby, to corporate entities.<href=”#_ftn22″ name=”_ftnref22″ title=””> Even some ICC non-parties have incorporated one or more of the Statute’s crimes into their domestic laws, with potential legal implications for corporations.<href=”#_ftn23″ name=”_ftnref23″ title=””>
Domestic incorporation may also have an extraterritorial dimension. Several countries provide for extraterritorial jurisdiction with respect to international crimes committed by or against their nationals; and a few rely on “universal jurisdiction” to extend their laws, regardless of nationality links.<href=”#_ftn24″ name=”_ftnref24″ title=””> Again, if they also permit criminal punishment of firms, those extraterritorial provisions could be extended to corporations.
Apart from national incorporation of international standards, a number of legal systems are evolving independently towards greater recognition of corporate criminal liability for violations of domestic law. Most common law countries have such provisions, at least for economic and some violent crimes. Many European civil law countries have moved beyond purely administrative regulation to adopt some form of criminal responsibility for corporations.
In this fluid setting, simple laws of probability alone suggest that corporations will be subject to increased liability for international crimes in the future. They may face either criminal or civil liability depending on whether international standards are incorporated into a State’s criminal code or as a civil cause of action (as under the United States Alien Torts Claims Act, or ATCA). Furthermore, companies cannot be certain where claims will be brought against them or what precise standards they may be held to, because no two national jurisdictions have identical evidentiary and other procedural rules. Finally, civil proceedings may be brought for related wrongs under domestic law, such as assault or false imprisonment.<href=”#_ftn25″ name=”_ftnref25″ title=””> In short, the risk environment for companies is expanding slowly but steadily, as are remedial options for victims.
Adding to the uncertainty for corporations, significant national variations remain in modes of attributing corporate liability. Given the difficulty of establishing a corporate “mind and will” in criminal cases, a number of jurisdictions have adopted a “corporate culture” approach. In Australia, where a firm’s culture has been deemed expressly or tacitly to permit the commission of an offence by an employee, the firm may be held liable.<href=”#_ftn26″ name=”_ftnref26″ title=””> In the United States, federal sentencing guidelines take corporate culture into account in assessing monetary penalties.<href=”#_ftn27″ name=”_ftnref27″ title=””>
There are also national differences in attributing liability within transnational corporate structures. The doctrine of separate corporate personality treats each member of a corporate group as a legally distinct entity. No uniform formula exists for “piercing the corporate veil” that separates a subsidiary from its parent company in order to hold the parent responsible for the subsidiary’s acts. One alternative that has attracted attention is for the home State to impose civil liability on the parent company for its acts and omissions regarding activities by its subsidiaries abroad.<href=”#_ftn28″ name=”_ftnref28″ title=””> The rules governing extraterritorial jurisdiction suggest that such provisions are permissible.
Few legitimate firms may ever directly commit acts that amount to international crimes. But there is greater risk of their facing allegations of “complicity” in such crimes. For example, of the more than 40 ATCA cases brought against companies in the United States (now the largest body of domestic jurisprudence regarding corporate responsibility for international crimes), most have concerned alleged complicity where the actual perpetrators were public or private security forces, other government agents, or armed factions in civil conflicts.<href=”#_ftn29″ name=”_ftnref29″ title=””>
Corporate complicity is an umbrella term for a range of ways in which companies may be liable for their participation in criminal or civil wrongs. With nuanced differences, most national legal systems appear to recognize complicity as a concept. The international tribunals have developed a fairly clear standard for individual criminal aiding and abetting liability: knowingly providing practical assistance, encouragement or moral support that has a substantial effect on the commission of the crime.<href=”#_ftn30″ name=”_ftnref30″ title=””> Where national courts adopt this standard it is likely that its application to corporations would closely track its application to individuals, although the element of “moral support” may pose specific challenges.<href=”#_ftn31″ name=”_ftnref31″ title=””>
“Moral support” can establish individual liability under international law, and the tribunals have extended it to include silent presence coupled with authority. But a company trying in good faith to avoid involvement in human rights abuses might have difficulty knowing what counts as moral support for legal purposes. Mere presence in a country and paying taxes are unlikely to create liability. But deriving indirect economic benefit from the wrongful conduct of others may do so, depending on such facts as the closeness of the company’s association with those actors. Greater clarity currently does not exist. However, it is established that even where a corporation does not intend for the crime to occur, and regrets its commission, it will not be absolved of liability if it knew, or should have known, that it was providing assistance, and that the assistance would contribute to the commission of a crime.
In business sector Human Right violations under international law:
The emerging corporate responsibility for international crimes is grounded in growing national acceptance of international standards for individual responsibility. Although it continues to evolve, there is observable evidence of its existence. In contrast, what if any legal responsibilities corporations may have for other human rights violations under international law is subject to far greater existential debate.<href=”#_ftn32″ name=”_ftnref32″ title=””>
At national levels, there is enormous diversity in the scope and content of corporate legal responsibilities regarding human rights.<href=”#_ftn33″ name=”_ftnref33″ title=””> A systematic mapping would require a comprehensive country-by-country study not only of the direct applicability of international law, but also of a range of relevant national measures: constitutional protections of human rights, legislative provisions, administrative mechanisms, and case law. However, preliminary research has not identified the emergence of uniform and consistent State practice establishing corporate responsibilities under customary international law.<href=”#_ftn34″ name=”_ftnref34″ title=””>
The traditional view of international human rights instruments is that they impose only indirect responsibilities on corporations, i.e. responsibilities provided under domestic law in accordance with States’ international obligations. In contrast, some observers hold that these instruments already impose direct legal responsibilities on corporations but merely lack direct accountability mechanisms. For example, the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, explaining that its proposed norms reflect and restate existing international law, attributed the entire spectrum of State duties under the treaties ? to respect, protect, promote, and fulfil rights – to corporations within their spheres of influence.
This section looks for evidence of direct corporate legal responsibilities under the international sources featured in this debate: the International Bill of Human Rights – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the two Covenants (ICESCR and ICCPR) – the other core United Nations human rights treaties and the International Labour Organization (ILO) core conventions. It also notes major trends within the regional human rights systems. Nothing prevents States from imposing international responsibilities directly on companies; the question is whether they have already done so.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights occupies a unique place in the international normative order. Its preamble proclaims that “every individual and every organ of society … shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance”.<href=”#_ftn35″ name=”_ftnref35″ title=””> In Louis Henkin’s famous words: “Every individual includes juridical persons. Every individual and every organ of society excludes no one, no company, no market, no cyberspace. The Universal Declaration applies to them all.”<href=”#_ftn36″ name=”_ftnref36″ title=””> Henkin is surely correct in stating that the aspirations and moral claims of the Declaration were addressed, and apply, to all humanity and, as we shall see in section V on self-regulation, companies themselves invoke it in formulating their own human rights policies. But that does not equate to legally binding effect.
Many provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have entered customary international law. While there is some debate, it is generally agreed that they currently apply only to States (and sometimes individuals) and do not include its preamble. Most of its provisions have also been incorporated in the Covenants and other United Nations human rights treaties. Do these instruments establish direct legal responsibilities for corporations? Several of them include preambular, and therefore non-binding, recognition that individuals have duties to others. But the operational paragraphs do not address the issue explicitly.<href=”#_ftn37″ name=”_ftnref37″ title=””>
The treaties do say that States have a duty to “ensure respect” for and “ensure the enjoyment” of rights. Some have argued that this implies a direct legal obligation for all social actors, including corporations, to respect those rights in the first place. How can this claim be tested? One means is by examining the commentaries of the treaty bodies, as they are charged with providing authoritative interpretations. Although their mandate is to define state responsibilities, several have exhibited growing interest in the role of business itself with regard to human rights.
Where the treaty bodies discuss corporate responsibilities, it is unclear whether they regard them as legal in nature. The most recent general comment of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) on the right to work, for example, recognizes that various private actors “have responsibilities regarding the realization of the right to work”, that private enterprises – national and multinational – “have a particular role to play in job creation, hiring policies and non-discriminatory access to work”.<href=”#_ftn38″ name=”_ftnref38″ title=””> But then, in the same comment, the Committee appears to reiterate the traditional view that such enterprises are “not bound” by the Covenant. Similarly, the most recent general comment of the Human Rights Committee (HRC) concludes that the treaty obligations “do not … have direct horizontal effect as a matter of international law” – that is, they take effect as between non-State actors only under domestic law.<href=”#_ftn39″ name=”_ftnref39″ title=””>
In short, the treaties do not address direct corporate legal responsibilities explicitly, while the commentaries of the treaty bodies on the subject are ambiguous. However, the increased attention the Committees are devoting to the need to prevent corporate abuse acknowledges that businesses are capable of both breaching human rights and contributing to their protection.<href=”#_ftn40″ name=”_ftnref40″ title=””>
On purely logical grounds, a stronger argument could be made for direct corporate responsibilities under the ILO core conventions: their subject matter addresses all types of employers, including corporations; corporations generally acknowledge greater responsibility for their employees than for other stakeholders; and the ILO’s supervisory mechanism and complaints procedure specify roles for employer organizations and trade unions. But logic alone does not make law, and the legal responsibilities of corporations under the ILO conventions remain indirect.
At the regional level there is greater diversity. The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights is unusual because it imposes direct duties on individuals, but opinions vary on their effect and whether they apply to groups, including corporations. Expert commentary suggests that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights may have moved away from the traditional view when it recognized that non-discrimination “gives rise to effects with regard to third parties”, including in private employment relationships, “under which the employer must respect the human rights of his workers”.<href=”#_ftn41″ name=”_ftnref41″ title=””> The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has limited itself to condemning non-State actor abuses. The European Court of Human Rights has generally adopted the traditional view, imposing far-reaching obligations to protect on States but leaving to them the choice of means.<href=”#_ftn42″ name=”_ftnref42″ title=””>
In conclusion, it does not seem that the international human rights instruments discussed here currently impose direct legal responsibilities on corporations. Even so, corporations are under growing scrutiny by the international human rights mechanisms. And while States have been unwilling to adopt binding international human rights standards for corporations, together with business and civil society they have drawn on some of these instruments in establishing soft law standards and initiatives. It seems likely, therefore, that these instruments will play a key role in any future development of defining corporate responsibility for human rights
State law under business and human rights:
Soft law is “soft” in the sense that it does not by itself create legally binding obligations. It derives its normative force through recognition of social expectations by States and other key actors.<href=”#_ftn43″ name=”_ftnref43″ title=””> States may turn to soft law for several reasons: to chart possible future directions for, and fill gaps in, the international legal order when they are not yet able or willing to take firmer measures; where they conclude that legally binding mechanisms are not the best tool to address a particular issue; or in some instances to avoid having more binding measures gain political momentum.
This section maps three current types of soft law arrangements that address corporate responsibility and accountability for human rights: the traditional standard-setting role performed by intergovernmental organizations; the enhanced accountability mechanisms recently added by some intergovernmental initiatives; and an emerging multi-stakeholder form that involves corporations directly, along with States and civil society organizations, in redressing sources of corporate-related human rights abuses.<href=”#_ftn44″ name=”_ftnref44″ title=””>
A prominent example of the normative role of soft law is the ILO Tripartite Declaration of Principles Concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy, endorsed not only by States but also by global employers’ and workers’ organizations. It proclaims that all parties, including multinational enterprises, “should respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the corresponding international Covenants”.<href=”#_ftn45″ name=”_ftnref45″ title=””>
The OECD Guidelines perform a similar role. They acknowledge that the capacity and willingness of States to implement their international human rights obligations vary. Accordingly, they recommend that firms “respect the human rights of those affected by their activities consistent with the host Government’s obligations and commitments”<href=”#_ftn46″ name=”_ftnref46″ title=””> – the commentary expressly indicating that these include the host State’s international commitments.<href=”#_ftn47″ name=”_ftnref47″ title=””>
Both instruments are widely referenced by Governments and businesses and may, in due course, crystallize into harder forms. Thus, soft law’s normative role remains essential to elaborating and further developing standards of corporate responsibility.<href=”#_ftn48″ name=”_ftnref48″ title=””>
Several intergovernmental initiatives have recently focused not only on promulgating standards for companies, but also on ways to enhance accountability for compliance. For example, due to civil society demands, anyone can now bring a complaint against a multinational firm, operating within the sphere of the OECD Guidelines, to the attention of a National Contact Point (NCP) – a non-judicial review procedure. Some NCPs have also become more transparent about the details of complaints and conclusions, permitting greater social tracking of corporate conduct, although the overall performance of NCPs remains highly uneven. And the OECD Investment Committee has expanded its oversight of NCPs, providing another opportunity to review their treatment of complaints.
For its part, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) now has performance standards that companies are required to meet in return for IFC investment funds. They include several human rights elements.<href=”#_ftn49″ name=”_ftnref49″ title=””> Depending on the project, IFC may require impact assessments that include human rights elements and community consultation. Client compliance is subject to review by an ombudsman, who may hear complaints from anyone adversely affected by the social or environmental consequences of an IFC-funded project.<href=”#_ftn50″ name=”_ftnref50″ title=””> The IFC standards also have accountability spillover effects, as they are tracked by banks adhering to the Equator Principles, which account for some two thirds of global commercial project lending.<href=”#_ftn51″ name=”_ftnref51″ title=””>Beyond the intergovernmental system, a new multi-stakeholder form of soft law initiatives is emerging. Most prominent among them are the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights (Voluntary Principles), promoting corporate human rights risk assessments and training of security providers in the extractive sector; the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (Kimberley) to stem the flow of conflict diamonds; and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), establishing a degree of revenue transparency in the taxes, royalties and fees companies pay to host Governments.
Driven by social pressure, these initiatives seek to close regulatory gaps that contribute to human rights abuses. But they do so in specific operational contexts, not in any overarching manner. Moreover, recognizing that some business and human rights challenges require multi?stakeholder responses, they allocate shared responsibilities and establish mutual accountability mechanisms within complex collaborative networks. These can include any combination of host and home States, corporations, civil society actors, industry associations, international institutions and investors groups.
These hybrids seek to enhance the responsibility and accountability of States and corporations alike by means of operational standards and procedures for firms. These often go together with regulatory action by Governments, both supported by transparency mechanisms. Kimberley, for instance, involves a global certification scheme implemented through domestic law. States ensure that the diamonds they trade are from Kimberley-compliant countries by requiring detailed packaging protocols and certification, coupled with chain-of-custody warranties by companies.
In these collaborative ventures, there is no external legislative body that sets standards and no separate adjudicative body to assess compliance. Both functions are internalized within the operational entity itself. But without such mechanisms, how can they be judged?
These initiatives may be seen as still largely experimental expressions of an emerging practice of voluntary global administrative rulemaking and implementation, which exist in a number of areas where the intergovernmental system has not kept pace with rapid changes in social expectations. Because they are relatively new and few in number, no definitive standards exist yet by which to assess them. But among the key criteria suggested by those who study them professionally are the perceived credibility of their governance structures, and their effectiveness.<href=”#_ftn52″ name=”_ftnref52″ title=””>
The credibility of their governance structures, in turn, is said to hinge on three factors: participation, transparency, and ongoing status reviews. Thus, regarding participation, civil society and industry members collaborated with States to develop the standards for, and now participate in, the governance of the Voluntary Principles, EITI and Kimberley. Concerning transparency, EITI and Kimberley have established detailed public reporting requirements for participants, as well as multi-stakeholder monitoring. And in terms of participant compliance, Kimberley carries out peer reviews of member States, often spurred by civil society reports of government-related performance shortfalls; EITI recently established a validation process by which non-compliant members may have their status publicly reduced; and Kimberley actually removed one Government, effectively shutting it out of the international diamond trade – a measure permitted under World Trade Organization rules.
None of the initiatives examined here embodies all of these standards fully. But each exhibits some, and participants appear to realize, albeit sometimes reluctantly, that the credibility of these initiatives rests on them.<href=”#_ftn53″ name=”_ftnref53″ title=””>
The effectiveness of these initiatives can be measured in two ways. One is their operational impact on the ground. It is generally acknowledged that Kimberley has reduced the flow of conflict diamonds from 3 or 4 per cent to 1 per cent of the total market, the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative reports that it gained taxpayers the equivalent of US$ 1 billion in 2004 and 2005;<href=”#_ftn54″ name=”_ftnref54″ title=””> and the Voluntary Principles have been implemented most extensively at the country level in Colombia, which is not yet even a formal participant in the process, but where several thousand armed forces members have gone through company?supported human rights training.<href=”#_ftn55″ name=”_ftnref55″ title=””> Thus, even though their participants admit that substantial improvements are required, these initiatives have a significant operational impact.
A second measure of effectiveness is whether they serve as examples for others. Indeed, the relative ease with which they can be established, in contrast with treaty-based instruments, together with their perceived potential, have directly inspired parallel efforts in related fields, including rules regarding private security forces and also for businesses beyond the extractive sector.<href=”#_ftn56″ name=”_ftnref56″ title=””>
One final feature of recent innovations in soft law arrangements – both the intergovernmental and multi-stakeholder variety – should be noted. As they strengthen their accountability mechanisms, they also begin to blur the lines between the strictly voluntary and mandatory spheres for participants. Once in, exiting can be costly. No company has to accept IFC financing or loans from Equator banks but if they do, certain performance criteria are required for continued funding. Countries are free to join the EITI or not, but if they do then extractive companies are required to issue public reports of their payments to Governments. Suspension or expulsion from Kimberley has a direct economic impact on countries and companies. Voluntary Principles language – and in some cases the actual text – has been incorporated into legal agreements between Governments and companies. And once the Voluntary Principles adopt participation criteria, non-compliance similarly could lead to expulsion.
In sum, the standard-setting role of soft law remains as important as ever to crystallize emerging norms in the international community. The increased focus on accountability in some intergovernmental arrangements, coupled with the innovations in soft law mechanisms that involve corporations directly in regulatory rulemaking and implementation, suggests increased State and corporate acknowledgment of evolving social expectations and a recognition of the need to exercise shared responsibility.
Regulation of business:
In addition to legal standards, hard or soft, the mandate of the Special Representative includes evolving social expectations regarding responsible corporate citizenship, including human rights. One key indicator consists of the policies and practices that business itself adopts voluntarily, triggered by its assessment of human rights-related risks and opportunities, often under pressure from civil society and local communities. This section maps such standards of self-regulation.<href=”#_ftn57″ name=”_ftnref57″ title=””>
However, mapping the entire universe of business enterprises is impossible. More than 77,000 transactional corporations currently span the globe, with roughly 770,000 subsidiaries and millions of suppliers.<href=”#_ftn58″ name=”_ftnref58″ title=””> Those numbers are dwarfed by local firms, and an even bigger informal sector in developing countries.
Therefore, the Special Representative conducted studies of a subset of business entities to determine how they perceive corporate responsibility and accountability regarding human rights. One was a questionnaire survey of the Fortune Global 500 firms (FG500), which are under social scrutiny as the world’s largest companies. The second (“business recognition study”) consisted of three parts: actual policies, rather than questionnaire responses, of a broader cross-section of firms from all regions (including developing countries) screened as likely to have policies that include human rights; eight collective initiatives that include human rights standards, like the Fair Labor Association (FLA) or the International Council on Metals and Mining (ICMM); and the human rights criteria employed by five socially responsible investment funds (SRI funds).<href=”#_ftn59″ name=”_ftnref59″ title=””>
Such a mapping could barely have been done five years ago because few corporate human rights policies existed. Uptake has been especially rapid among large global firms, a group still predominantly domiciled in Europe, North America and Japan. Newer entrants from other regions lag behind, although it is unclear whether this lag reflects a fundamental difference or merely timing. Numerous firms in the business recognition study only recently joined initiatives like the Global Compact and are only beginning to develop human rights policies. And the FG500 survey demonstrates that there is substantial policy diffusion in this domain: fewer than half of the respondents indicated having experienced “a significant human rights issue” themselves, yet almost all reported having policies or management practices in place relating to human rights.
All FG500 respondents, irrespective of region or sector, included non-discrimination as a core corporate responsibility, at minimum meaning recruitment and promotion based on merit. Workplace health and safety standards were cited almost as frequently. More than three quarters recognized freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, the prohibition against child and forced labour, and the right to privacy. European firms were more likely than their United States counterparts to recognize the rights to life, liberty, and security of person; health; and an adequate standard of living.
The survey asked the FG500 firms to rank the stakeholders their human rights policies or practices encompassed – in effect, to indicate their conception of their sphere of influence. Employees were ranked highest (99 per cent); suppliers and others in their value chain next (92.5 per cent); then the communities in which companies operated (71 per cent); followed by countries of operation (63 per cent). The only significant variations were that the extractive sector ranked communities ahead of suppliers, while United States and Japanese firms placed communities and countries of operations far lower than European companies.
Companies referenced international instruments in formulating their policies. Among the FG500, ILO declarations and conventions topped the list, followed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. United Nations human rights treaties were mentioned infrequently. The Global Compact was cited by just over 50 per cent, the OECD Guidelines by just fewer than 50 per cent. More than 80 per cent also said they worked with external stakeholders on their human rights policies. NGOs topped that list, followed by industry associations. Intergovernmental organizations were a distant third – except for United States firms, which ranked them fifth, behind labor unions and Governments.
The broader cross-section of companies paralleled the FG500 in recognizing labor standards. But their recognition of other rights was consistently lower: the highest, at 16 per cent, was the right to security of the person, encompassing both the right to life and the freedom from cruel and unusual punishment.<href=”#_ftn60″ name=”_ftnref60″ title=””> For areas covered by social, economic, and cultural rights these companies tended to emphasize their philanthropic contributions.
Firms in both samples participated in one of the eight collective initiatives.<href=”#_ftn61″ name=”_ftnref61″ title=””> The recognition of rights by these initiatives closely reflected industry sectors: for example, those in manufacturing focused more on labor rights, whereas the extractive initiatives emphasized community relations and indigenous rights. Moreover, they drew on international standards: the FLA and Social Accountability 8000 meet or exceed most core ILO rights, while Equator banks track the IFC’s performance standards. The SRI indices mirrored the overall high recognition of labour rights, and several exhibited a particular concern for rights related to indigenous peoples, as well as the right to a family life.
How do these companies and other business entities respond to social expectations regarding accountability? Most FG500 firms said they had internal reporting systems to monitor their human rights performance. Three quarters indicated that they also reported externally, but of those fewer than half utilized a third-party medium like the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). Some form of supply chain monitoring was relatively common. But only one third said they routinely included human rights criteria within their social/environmental impact assessments. The business recognition study generally matched this pattern.
Similarly, each of the collective initiatives required some form of reporting; the ICMM utilizes the GRI. Most had remediation requirements for non-compliant participants, and four prescribed grievance mechanisms for employees or community members. Five extended human rights requirements to supply chain practices, with accountability mechanisms ranging from periodic audits to certifying individual factories or global brands.
In short, leading business players recognize human rights and adopt means to ensure basic accountability. Yet even among the leaders, certain weaknesses of voluntarism are evident. Companies do not necessarily recognize those rights on which they may have the greatest impact. And while the rights they do recognize typically draw on international instruments, the language is rarely identical. Some interpretations are so elastic that the standards lose meaning, making it difficult for the company itself, let alone the public, to assess performance against commitments.
There are also variations in the rights companies emphasize that seem unrelated to expected sectoral differences, but which appear instead to reflect the political culture of company home countries. For example, European-based firms are most likely to adopt a comprehensive rights agenda, including social and economic rights, with American firms tending to recognize a narrower spectrum of rights and rights holders.
Where self-regulation remains most challenged, however, is in its accountability provisions. The number, diversity, and uptake of instruments have grown significantly. But they also pose serious issues about the meaning of accountability and how it is established. Only three can be touched on here: human rights impact assessments (HRIAs); materiality; and assurance.
For businesses with large physical or societal footprints, accountability should begin with assessments of what their human rights impact will be. This would permit companies and affected communities to find ways of avoiding negative impacts from the start. Several SRI funds strongly promote HRIAs, coupled with community engagement and dialogue. However, relatively few firms conduct these assessments routinely and only a handful seem ever to have done a fully-fledged HRIA, in contrast to including selected human rights criteria in broader social/environmental assessments.<href=”#_ftn62″ name=”_ftnref62″ title=””> And apparently only one company, BP, has ever made public even a summary of an HRIA. No single measure would yield more immediate results in the human rights performance of firms than conducting such assessments where appropriate.
The concept of materiality refers to the content of company reporting – whether it conveys information that really matters. The number of firms reporting their social, environmental and human rights profiles, called “sustainability reporting”, has risen exponentially.<href=”#_ftn63″ name=”_ftnref63″ title=””> But quality has not matched quantity. Far fewer companies report systematically on how their core business strategies and operations impact on these sustainability issues. Instead, anecdotal descriptions of isolated projects and philanthropic activity often prevail. Moreover, only a handful of companies combine social and financial reporting, despite the fact that the former has sustainability implications for the latter.<href=”#_ftn64″ name=”_ftnref64″ title=””> The GRI provides standardized protocols to improve the quality and comparability of company reporting, but fewer than 200 firms report in accordance with GRI guidelines, another 700 partially do so, while others claim to use them informally.<href=”#_ftn65″ name=”_ftnref65″ title=””>
Assurance helps people to know whether companies actually do what they say. A growing proportion of sustainability reports (circa 40 per cent) include some form of audit statement, typically provided by large accounting firms or smaller consultancies.<href=”#_ftn66″ name=”_ftnref66″ title=””> Two global assurance standards have emerged, one giving companies more control over what is assured (called ISAE3000), and the second empowering the assurance provider to consider stakeholder concerns in determining what is material and therefore should be included in public reports (AA1000AS).<href=”#_ftn67″ name=”_ftnref67″ title=””> Both standards help the public determine whether the information reported is reasonably likely to be accurate, based on such factors as the quality of the management, monitoring, data collection, and other systems in place to generate it, as well as its materiality. A growing but still small fraction of the largest companies use these standards.
Supply chain assurance faces the greatest credibility challenges. Global brands and retailers, among others, have developed supplier codes to compensate for weak or unenforced standards in some countries, because global social expectations require them to demonstrate adherence to minimum standards. However, without independent external assurance of some sort these systems lack credibility, especially for companies with questionable performance records. Standards for supply chain auditing are highly variable. Among the most trusted are the brand certification and SA8000 factory certification systems of the Fair Labor Association (FLA), both of which involve multi-stakeholder governance structures. Similar to the hybrid initiatives discussed in the previous section, the credibility of voluntary accountability mechanisms is enhanced by processes involving participation, transparency, and review, which these two systems embody.<href=”#_ftn68″ name=”_ftnref68″ title=””>
For several reasons, the initiatives described in this section have not reached all types of companies. First, because many of the tools were developed for large na