State responsibility, corporate
responsibility, and complicity
in human rights violations
This chapter takes a legal approach to the question of corporate responsibility. The chapter is designed to complement the philosophical and historical approaches being developed in the chapters addressing the “harmful side-effects of corporate activity”. Some of the same concepts that are central to the philosophical debate are examined in their legal context. For example, questions of complicity, participation, intention, foreseeability, necessity, and proportionality all arise in the context of international criminal law. It is not suggested that the legal framework is the only framework of relevance for an understanding of corporate responsibility; in many situations the ethical or moral arguments will be more persuasive for corporate actors. The international criminal law framework builds in significant guarantees for defendants to ensure that individuals are not deprived of their liberty in unfair or unjust ways. A criminal law approach may therefore sometimes protect an entity from punishment where a morally based framework might hold the same “accused” blameworthy. In determining how corporations should act, international criminal law may provide some clear indications as to when a corporation or its officers will be liable in law. On the other hand, international criminal law should not be seen as the only framework; companies may have moral, operational, and utilitarian reasons for promoting and respecting human rights.