Corporations and Human Rights: A Theory of Legal Responsibility

By Ratner, Steven R. | The Yale Law Journal, December 2001 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Corporations and Human Rights: A Theory of Legal Responsibility


Ratner, Steven R., The Yale Law Journal


The last decade has witnessed a striking new phenomenon in strategies to protect human rights: a shift by global actors concerned about human rights from nearly exclusive attention on the abuses committed by governments to close scrutiny of the activities of business enterprises, in particular multinational corporations. Claims that various kinds of corporate activity have a detrimental impact on human welfare are at least as old as Marxism, and have always been a mantra of the political left worldwide. But today's assertions are different both in their origin and in their content. They emanate not from ideologues with a purportedly redistributive agenda, but from international organizations composed of states both rich and poor; and from respected nongovernmental organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, whose very credibility turns on avoidance of political affiliation. Equally importantly, these groups do not seek to delegitimize capitalism or corporate economic power itself, but have criticized certain corporate behavior for impinging on clearly accepted norms of human rights law based on widely ratified treaties and customary international law.

Consider the following small set of claims challenging private business activity and the arenas in which they occur:

* The United Nations Security Council condemns illegal trade in diamonds for fueling the civil war in Sierra Leone and asks private diamond trading associations to cooperate in establishing a regime to label diamonds of legitimate origin. (1)

* The European Parliament, concerned about accusations against European companies of involvement in human rights abuses in the developing world, calls upon the European Commission to develop a "European multilateral framework governing companies' operations worldwide" and to include in it a binding code of conduct. (2)

* In response to public concern that American companies and their agents are violating the rights of workers in the developing world, the U.S. government endorses and oversees the creation of a voluntary code of conduct for the apparel industry. (3)

* The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in a searching study of apartheid, devotes three days of hearings and a chapter of its final report to the involvement of the business sector in the practices of apartheid. (4)

* Human Rights Watch establishes a special unit on corporations and human rights; in 1999, it issues two lengthy reports, one accusing the Texas-based Enron Corporation of "corporate complicity in human rights violations" by the Indian government, (5) and another accusing Shell, Mobil, and other international oil companies operating in Nigeria of cooperating with the government in suppressing political opposition. (6)

* Citizens of Burma and Indonesia sue Unocal and Freeport-McMoRan in United States courts under the Alien Tort Claims Act and accuse the companies of violating the human rights of people near their operations. The corporations win both suits without a trial. (7)

* Holocaust survivors sue European banks, insurance companies, and industries for complicity in wartime human rights violations, and, with the aid of the U.S. government, achieve several multimillion-dollar settlements. (8)

The creation of a new target for human rights advocates is a product of various forces encompassed in the term globalization: the dramatic increase in investment by multinational companies in the developing world; the sense that the economic might of some corporations has eroded the power of the state; the global telecommunications revolution, which has brought worldwide attention to the conditions of those living in less developed countries and has increased the capacity of NGOs to mobilize public opinion; the work of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) in requiring states to be more hospitable to foreign investors; and the well-documented accounts of the activities of a handful of corporations.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Corporations and Human Rights: A Theory of Legal Responsibility
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?