Academic journal article Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law

Beyond Voluntary Corporate Social Responsibility: Corporate Human Rights Obligations to Prevent Disasters and to Provide Temporary Emergency Relief

Academic journal article Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law

Beyond Voluntary Corporate Social Responsibility: Corporate Human Rights Obligations to Prevent Disasters and to Provide Temporary Emergency Relief

Article excerpt


Much of the focus of the emerging field of International Disaster Law is on state responsibility. Yet the source of some disasters is the failure of corporations to address known risks created by a company or located on company property. This Article queries whether there are obligations for corporations to act under international human rights law to prevent disasters where corporations have control over known hazards such as tailings dams or chemical dumps. This Article concludes that corporations have a legal duty to act in order to support and protect human rights whenever there is corporate knowledge of hazards that may precipitate a disaster. Additionally, corporations are often well-placed to provide temporary emergency relief during disaster. This Article suggests there may be a legal duty for corporations to temporarily protect the fundamental human rights of communities during a disaster until government-organized relief is available.


   A. Definition of Disaster
   B. Current Business Engagement in
      Disaster Risk Reduction and
      Disaster Relief
   C. Corporations and Human Rights
   D. Corporations and Human Rights
      During Disasters

        1.     Duty to Prevent Disaster
               through Disaster Risk Reduction
               or Mitigation Efforts
        2.     Limited Duty for Disaster
               Response by Operational
               Businesses Located within a
               Disaster Zone
II. Conclusion


In places where hazardous business operations are the source of mass disasters, companies have been held legally responsible for injuries to the neighboring communities. (1) This is the case in post-Bhopal India with the creation of a doctrine of "absolute liability" when the Supreme Court of India decided two years after Bhopal that

   an enterprise that is engaged in a hazardous or inherently
   dangerous industry which poses a potential threat to the health and
   safety of the persons working in the factory and residing in the
   surrounding areas owes an absolute and non-delegable duty to the
   community to ensure that no harm results to anyone on account of
   the hazardous or inherently dangerous nature of the activity which
   it has undertaken. (2)

Can this concept of businesses proactively protecting a community from harm extend beyond operational business failures to protect communities from natural disasters? Before and when disaster strikes, do businesses, particularly well-capitalized multinational corporations, owe any special legal duties to the communities where they operate based on human rights law?

In the years to come, the legal status of businesses, as potential actors in the field of international disaster law, will become increasingly important, as both the number of people affected by disaster and the cost of disasters increase. (3) While businesses may choose to engage in disaster relief efforts, as the Union Carbide Corporation did when it funded the Prime Minister's Relief fund with $2 million and provided immediate medical equipment and supplies after the Bhopal disaster, (4) the question is whether this corporate response is based on concepts of corporate social responsibility (CSR) or whether corporate involvement in disaster prevention and relief should be based instead on a human rights-based legal duty. The source of the response matters because a response based on CSR is voluntary and not enforceable by law, while a response based on protecting fundamental human rights is obligatory and may be legally enforceable. This Article argues that under existing human rights law, corporations have dual international legal duties in relation to potential or actual disasters that correlate with duties based on the protection of individual human rights. First, corporations operating within a specific community or region must proactively protect communities from corporate activities or conditions that are likely to directly or indirectly cause harm to the community, such as a Bhopal-like industrial disaster. …

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