Human Rights Responsibilities of Private Corporations

By Paust, Jordan J. | Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Human Rights Responsibilities of Private Corporations


Paust, Jordan J., Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law


ABSTRACT

This Article discusses the human rights responsibilities of private corporations. Part I addresses how decisions and activities of multinational corporations impact human rights. Part II examines corporate liability under human rights laws by examining trends in judicial decisions in the United States and foreign states and human rights instruments. Part III explores the types of human rights deprivations that multinational corporations might cause. The Article concludes by predicting that there will be increasing scrutiny of corporate deprivations of human rights at the domestic, regional, and international levels.

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I. DECISIONS AND ACTIVITIES OF MULTINATIONAL CORPORATIONS CAN SIGNIFICANTLY IMPACT HUMAN RIGHTS

Many private economic institutions, such as large multinational corporations, often wield significant power and affect numerous human beings both directly and indirectly in various sectors of public and private life. In fact, many multinational corporations wield more effective power and wealth than many nation-states. In terms of potential impact, decisions and activities of many large multinational corporations are capable of doing more harm to persons and resources in ways that thwart human rights than decisions and activities of some nation-states. (1) Additionally, large economic institutions are often capable of doing more harm in violation of international law than private individuals because they often wield more power and wealth than individuals, often engage in activities that transcend state boundaries and effective control, and are often capable of causing more extensive injuries to persons or harm to property, other resources, and the environment, both domestically and transnationally. It is appropriate, therefore, to address human rights responsibilities of private corporations, including relevant trends in judicial decisions, the reach of human rights instruments, and types of potential violations.

II. MULTINATIONAL CORPORATIONS CAN BE LIABLE UNDER HUMAN RIGHTS LAW

A. Cases Recognize Private and Corporate Responsibility for Human Rights Violations

1. Trends in Decisions in the United States

Does human rights law reach private multinational corporations? Despite the lack of widespread early attention to private corporate liability for human rights deprivations, preferences of a few textwriters, and remarkable confusion, (2) human rights law can reach private corporations. More generally, a private corporation as such is simply a juridic person and has no immunity under U.S. domestic or international law. In each nation-state, private corporations, like private individuals, are bound by domestic laws. (3) Similarly, private corporations and entities are bound by international laws applicable to individuals. For example, in the United States and elsewhere, companies and other non-state associations and organizations have been found to have civil and criminal responsibility for various violations of international law, including human rights and related international proscriptions. (4) In the United States, private companies have rights to sue under the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) (5) and it is only logical and policy-serving that they can also be defendants under the ATCA. In fact, there have been express recognitions to that effect in U.S. cases. (6) For example, in 1997, in Doe v. Unocal Corp., (7) the Central District of California recognized that several human rights and other international law claims made by farmers from Burma against a private corporation and others were viable under the ATCA. (8) These claims included claims of slave or "forced" labor, torture, violence against women, and other human rights violations and crimes against humanity that also occurred in complicity with Burmese military, intelligence groups, and police. (9) Addressing universal jurisdiction through the ATCA and nonimmunity of corporate actors for cruel, inhumane treatment and slave or forced labor, the district court in Iwanowa v. …

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