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Power Politics and its Global Shadows: From Margins to Center

Kamari Maxine Clarke is a Professor of Anthropology and Law. Her research explores issues related to social and political theory, legal pluralism, international law, and the interface between legal institutions and the related production of knowledge and power.  She is the author of over forty books and articles.  Her most recent book is entitled Fictions of Justice: The International Criminal Court and the Challenge of Legal Pluralism in Sub-Saharan Africa (Cambridge University Press, 2009).  She is now in the process of completing a book on The African Union’s recent creation of a criminal chamber to address international crimes on the African continent.

Rough Justice: The International Criminal Court in a World of Power Politics is an eloquently articulated book about international criminal law and American unipolar power in the twenty-first century. Combining international relations (IR) scholarship with an unprecedented mapping of the conceptualization, growth, and crystallization of international criminal justice, author David Bosco tells a story about the play of power amongst “powerful states” as it relates to the formation and development of the International Criminal Court (ICC). By taking up the way that IR and legal scholars have conceptualized the workings of globally dominant state powers – especially in dealing with international organizations they do not formally control—the book explores the ways that major state powers have approached the ICC with either “marginalization” or “controlling” behavior. Moving beyond Robert Keohane’s classic theory (1984) that repeated interactions can produce rational cooperation, Bosco invokes the work of IR scholars, Barbara Koremenos, Charles Lipson and Duncan Snidal to argue that while the spectrum of state behavior – ranging from active marginalization, to control, and acceptance – can be deployed to manage the ICC, western states such as the United States have used forms of mutual accommodation to neutralize the threats of ICC encroachment. Bosco argues that major state powers have attempted to control the ICC (by engaging formal mechanisms such as the UN Security Council or informal diplomatic measures). In this way, the Court has become an instrument for “major powers” to respond to the instability of “weaker states”.

Yet, as much as Bosco’s conceptualizations of influence, decision-making, and the politics of state behavior are laudable, his trajectory reflects the workings of certain forms of power and does not fully take into consideration a large part of the story. By distinguishing between national states according to categories such as “strong” and “weak,” he sets himself up to miss nuances that are actually critical to how power and influence work in formal and informal settings. For example, once we recognize that the story of the origins of ICC justice is not simply one about the power of “strong” and “weak” states, we begin to understand international relations in more complex ways. We are called to make sense of the force of law, the play of sub- and supra-state power, and the relevance of political economy in the messy engagements between the Global North and the Global South.

Bosco begins his book with an inquiry into why and when so called “powerful” states joined or did not join the Rome treaty system. He spends very little time, despite the ICC’s Africa focus, exploring why those African states that eventually became the subjects of ICC investigations joined the treaty. Instead, he describes how political jockeying among Western states after Nuremberg and during and after the Cold War was key to contemporary state behavior among “strong states”. For Bosco, politics and control of the ICC is pivotal. He described crimes that were defined under the subject matter jurisdiction of the Court in the following way: “Efforts by some states to include crimes that had not been clearly defined internationally, including terrorism and drug trafficking, failed” (52). However, an investigation into why economic crimes failed and what that failure meant in relation to the de facto immunity of various Western states is critical to a full appreciation of the story. The identification of certain core crimes in the Rome Statute is consequential: whether the core crimes were spectacular and individuated crimes or economic crimes like drug trafficking is relevant to what ultimately comes under the Court’s jurisdiction. Rather than reading the construction of Rome Statute crimes as revealing broader political interests, however, Bosco instead takes up questions concerning the structure of the Court that are based on an acceptance that its subject matter jurisdiction occurs outside of the political. This assumption, that the making of the subject matter jurisdiction of the Court is separate from the play of politics, appears to establish his comfort with ICC crimes as political and individually driven rather than enabling crimes involving multiple economic interests, Western and nonwestern, rebels or democratically elected, and this orients his analysis of the brute forms of justice that are underway in the first decade of the ICC’s existence.

Because political economy and micro-politics of power are bracketed in Rough Justice, African resource-driven violence is relevant only insofar as it relates to Africans becoming subjects of the Court. What is missed – as a result – are the economic drivers of conflict and those Western interests that are being protected. Instead, the book asserts that the statute gave the Court jurisdiction over four crimes: aggression, genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. These crimes are classified as those already elaborated in international law and therefore enjoying widespread acceptance. In the end, Bosco highlights the fundamentally “political” aspects of those crimes but stops short of analyzing the conditions of legal possibility by which African states became subjects of the ICC. Through his focus on the negotiations of major powers he forecloses the relevance of African states in ICC deliberations. Yet,it is the “powerful states” that shaped the conditions in which African states rather than European states became subjects of the Court, and in the shadows were a range of other crimes, enabling crimes, that Bosco dismisses without comment. And herein is the surprising absence in Rough Justice: the link between resource struggles that contributed to violence and the conditions of possibility in which enabling crimes fell outside of the Court’s orbit.

It is not possible to tell the story of the contemporary ICC and focus on the negotiations of Western powers without making connections between Western resource interests, plunder, and endemic violence. Despite the focus of Rough Justice on Western state power and its relationship with international institutions, the macro-story is actually one of continuities in economic disparities and the workings of broader structures of power. It is true that Northern states remained outside of the reach of the Court for all of the reasons that Bosco explains. However, such instances of inequality are not marginal to the play of international power. Rather, they are central to the way that African leaders or African rebel leaders and not US or French or British leaders became pivotal to the ICC’s exercise of personal jurisdiction. This analytic gap is compounded by the missing explanations of why a regional majority of ICC state parties joined the ICC in the first place. In fact, it was not the spirit of Nuremberg that inspired the moral impetus of African-ICC involvement. Rather, the Rwandan genocide and the euphoria of post-apartheid South Africa contributed to the mobilization of African interests in setting up a body that might deter such mass violence in the future. Further, many African states joined the ICC treaty system based on the formal and informal pressure of Western states, institutions, and civil society groups. Western state actors tied international treaty participation to monetary lending; signing treaties like the Rome Statute were used as statistical indicators for predicting various state economic outcomes. From state stability, state fragility, and the probability of violence, such measures helped to propel new rule-of-law institutions and contributed to the conditions under which submission to international treaties was initially welcomed by many states, as it allowed for the renewal of various aid package and loan renewals. With the shift to new linkage measures that connected demonstrations of good governance and the renewal of critically important loans (from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank for example), signing international treaties became an indicator of good governance measures and was increasingly represented as state sanction of the new international order. These realities are critical to understanding the increasing significance of African states in the exercise of Rough Justice, and their absence from Bosco’s analysis is curious.

Africa enters Bosco’s analysis in relation to African violence seen as separate from Western interests. However, the violence in Africa pursued by the ICC, is not simply a narrative of violence begetting more violence. The discovery and extraction of natural resources like oil, diamonds, and gas has compounded situations of armed conflict across the African continent. Oil-rich Nigeria, for example, experienced ten successive military coups beginning in 1966, just a few years after independence and immediately following the discovery of its reserves. The struggle to control Nigeria’s government has always been in large part a struggle to control its massive resources. Minimal attention was given to developing state institutions. Instead, a highly centralized federal body with little to no accountability formed in its place. This is a pattern repeated across the continent. So it isn’t surprising that the race for political control in many African countries has led to electoral violence, and in some cases the development of rebel groups vying for political influence and the control of various extraction industries. The recent histories of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Liberia, Nigeria, Uganda, Sierra Leone, and Congo-Brazzaville all fit this trajectory – each with various international companies, rebel groups and governments deeply embattled in controlling resource extraction across Africa. In ICC ‘situation countries’, the reality is no different. From oil to coltan to various diamonds, gold and timber, the control of natural resources has been amongst the most important factors in Africa’s major conflicts. In the DRC, attempts by various actors to gain control over gold, coltan, and tin extractions such as tantalum and tungsten – used in commercial cellular phones, ipods, digital cameras and video recorders – continues to drive this complex conflict, drawing in neighboring states such as Rwanda that are backed by Western powers. Amongst the most central resource is oil; African states account for close to twelve percent of the world’s oil with large amounts being extracted from Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and North Africa, as well as Sudan, the DRC and Chad – all regions that have recently experienced related conflict. Similarly, control of the Central African Republic and the DRC’s diamonds are also central to two of the ICC’s situation countries. Foreign multi-national corporations have been involved in extracting minerals in addition, to various African rebel groups engaged in fighting for control of those resources or selling them illegally. These realities demonstrate the relevance of highlighting economic crimes, such as pillage, alongside those seen as more spectacular such as genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression. They also call into question the modes of liability for such violence that became framed through the individualization of criminal responsibility.

The second absence in Rough Justice is the relevance of the anti-ICC response by African states as a critical component of the play of power in the past six years of the Court’s existence. Since the warrants of arrests issued by President al-Bashir in Sudan and subsequent African leaders, as the basis for their growing opposition to ICC interventions, various African leaders began to criticize publically the ICC for its partiality and selectivity of African defendants as well as for the de facto immunity enjoyed by the West. Yet, Bosco’s timeline ends at the moment when a new development is underway in international relations jockeying – namely, the Africa-ICC push-back. Contrary to his 10-year analysis that focuses on the US and P5 power, developments have taken shape since 2012 by which the Court has started to take the objections of African states more seriously. Most notably, the Court’s second Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, as well as a large group of States Parties, have called for “a dialogue” with the AU and with individual African states.

The election of Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto as President and Deputy President of Kenya in March 2013 has shifted the African landscape as it relates to the ICC. In the fall of 2013, the commencement of Ruto’s trial and Kenyatta’s pre-trial hearing generated such political turmoil that the Court and its States Parties were forced to respond. At the 2013 Assembly, States Parties ‘gave in’ to one of the AU’s demands by amending the Court’s rules on presence at trial for those accused before the Court who also fulfill extraordinary public duties at the highest national level–such as sitting Heads of State. As a result of perceptions of inequality, various African states criticized the ICC and called for amendments to the Rome Statute, insisting that sitting Heads of State should become immune from prosecution by the Court.

African leaders have also expedited the process of establishing the African Court of Justice and Human and People’s Rights (African Court). This involved extending the jurisdiction of the African Court to include a range of transnational crimes and introducing modes of liability that include individual and corporate liability. The result was the early formation of an ‘African Criminal Court’, which expands punishable crimes from crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide, and the crime of aggression to those seen as relevant to Africa’s economic resource wars and illegal economies. The expansion of punishable crimes includes piracy, mercenarism, terrorism, corruption, illicit exploitation of natural resources, money laundering, the crime of unconstitutional change of government, and the trafficking of drugs, persons, and hazardous waste. These developments, as well as the reality of economic drivers of conflict, are central to the play of power in international institutions– not peripheral to it. They are an example of the workings of itinerant forms of power that prove difficult to trace within the “strong” state paradigm that Bosco’s analysis employs. To capture the complexity of the ICC’s work and the broader political economy in which it operates, we must carve out conceptual spaces for understanding human action and behavior that are not tied to rational cognitive processes leading to mutual accommodation, but that instead capture the inchoate and messy responses to international law. These responses reveal other assemblages that are as central to how “rough” justice can be when justice is understood through the conditions of possibility, the entanglements of interests, and the real effects of power.

On the Independence of International Prosecutors

Richard J. Goldstone is a former Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. He was the first Prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

David Bosco’s book Rough Justice contains an excellent survey of the first decade of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and, in particular, of the role played by its first Chief Prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo. Ocampo’s sometimes active and sometimes passive role with regard to each of the nine situations presently before the Court are carefully and comprehensively described and analysed.

The central theme that runs throughout is the role of politics and especially major power politics with regard to the decisions taken by the prosecutor and its influence on the successes and failures of the Court. The development of that theme is set against the history of the international criminal tribunals that preceded the ICC.

In setting up the two UN ad hoc tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the major Western powers, and especially the United States, played an indispensable role. As the cold war had ended and atrocities were again being perpetrated in Europe, in 1992 Russia and China were prepared to support an ad hoc war crimes tribunal under the auspices of the Security Council. When, soon after, Rwanda initiated a call for a similar tribunal in response to the genocide committed in its country in the middle of 1994, the Security Council could hardly refuse. Importantly, both of those tribunals were in no way inconsistent with the foreign policies of the P5 members of the Security Council.

The successes of the ad hoc tribunals and of the “hybrid” Special Court for Sierra Leone encouraged a number of less powerful nations, under the leadership of Canada, to call for a permanent international criminal court. They found it to be unacceptable that the final decision on whether to investigate atrocity crimes should be left to the Security Council subject to the veto power of the P5. The United States, China and Russia had some misgivings about such a court. They realised that it would operate outside their direct control. With the international courts established by the United Nations they were able to exercise a large measure of control over the jurisdiction, reach and powers of the court. They could not necessarily dictate policy to independent prosecutors and judges but they could certainly control their jurisdiction, resources and, to a large extent, the implementation of their orders and responses to their requests.

I feel more strongly than does Bosco about the extent to which international prosecutors have acted independently of the views of the major powers. He does refer to the actions of Ocampo in calling for an arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan in the face of objections from all of the P5 members of the Security Council. However, he raises some doubts about the reasons for other decisions such as the decision by the ICTY prosecutor deciding not to investigate alleged NATO war crimes in Serbia during 2000; the ICTR prosecutor deciding not to investigate war crimes allegedly committed by the RPF during 1994 in Rwanda; and some of the investigations abandoned by Ocampo. I will respond briefly.

With regard to alleged war crimes committed by NATO during its bombing campaign in 2000, the Prosecutor (Carla del Ponte) accepted the advice given her by the ICTY’s chief international lawyer to the effect that the evidence available was not sufficient to justify a formal investigation. In particular he came to the conclusion that there was no basis upon which indictments could be issued against individual officials. The evidence was clear that the NATO leaders, political and military, were at pains to avoid, to the extent possible, targeting civilians. At worst, the allegations of civilian casualties were a consequence of negligence or errors of judgment. There was no evidence at all to suggest intentional targeting of civilians. In any event, war crimes that might nonetheless have been committed by NATO were substantially less grave than those that were being investigated by the ICTY against the Serb military. Serbia, under Slobodan Milosevic, had been conducting an egregious campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Albanian population of Kosovo. Even if, as Bosco, suggests, NATO was unwilling to furnish information to the prosecutor concerning its conduct, I would suggest that Del Ponte’s decision was a justifiable one.

The case of RPF crimes allegedly committed in Rwanda is a more complex and unhappy one. As Bosco points out, the allegations of crimes committed against civilians were serious and merited the attention of the prosecutor. While they were not committed with genocidal intent, some of them appear to have reached the level of crimes against humanity. At the time that the allegations emerged it must have been obvious to both Louise Arbour and Carla del Ponte that if an investigation had been launched, the Government of Rwanda would have severed its relationship with the ICTR. In that light, the choice would have been to proceed with the RPF investigation in the knowledge that the response from Rwanda would effectively have brought the life of the tribunal to a premature end. It could not have proceeded with trials without witnesses and evidence from Rwanda. The mission of the ICTR was to investigate the genocide committed in 1994. I would suggest that the prosecutor was justified in abandoning the RPF investigation in order to enable her to continue with the primary mission of the ICTR. That this was not stated openly is a matter for regret.

With regard to the record of the prosecutions initiated by Ocampo, Bosco’s conclusion reads as follows:

“There is no “smoking gun” evidence that the prosecutor has made these choices because of perceived major-power preferences or out of a desire to avoid entanglement with them. There are plausible nonpolitical arguments against investigations in each of these cases. Because the prosecutor has only infrequently explained a decision not to open an investigation, moreover, there is little documentary evidence to assess. But the overall pattern strongly suggests that the prosecutor’s office has, to this point, used its discretion on where to open investigations strategically.”

That prosecutors take into account the support that one or other investigation and prosecution will receive from relevant governments seems to me to be obvious. It would indeed be folly to leave that out of account. There are many issues and considerations that dictate whether this or that investigation is appropriate. They include the gravity of the alleged crimes, the evidence available or likely to become available, the official position of the alleged perpetrators and the time, effort and expense of the investigation and prosecution. There are others. One is certainly the prospect of cooperation from relevant governments. It is in this respect that the United States is of particular importance. The intelligence information that it furnished to the prosecutor of the ICTY is well known.

In conclusion, the success of any international court will depend upon its independence and especially from the great powers. It was primarily for that reason that the ICC was established. The selection of its judges and their actual and perceived independence are crucial and no less that of the prosecutor. It is in this context that the issues raised and objectively analysed by Bosco are so important.

Symposium: Whither the International Criminal Court?

The International Criminal Court (ICC) finds itself in an interesting predicament. On the one hand, it purports to function as an independent mechanism for holding those responsible for atrocities to account, regardless of their nationality, political allegiances, or geopolitical significance. On the other, the institution is embedded in international law first and foremost, which is itself part and parcel of an international legal order where sovereign equality is only formal.

David Bosco has written an excellent book on the ICC’s initial years navigating this tension. The substance of the book, called Rough Justice: The International Criminal Court in a World of Power Politics (OUP, 2014), is ably introduced by the various participants in this symposium, so I will resist the temptation to rehearse its full argument now. In short, Bosco assesses the ICC’s first years within a framework that questions the extent to which powerful states have marginalized, controlled or accepted the Court, pointing to an important degree of “mutual accommodation.”

There is much to commend about this excellent work, which will no doubt animate discussions about international criminal justice generally and the ICC specifically for some time to come. I hold my own applause for my substantive contribution later in the symposium, but I do want to mention at the outset that Bosco’s text has prompted me to add another line to my blogging manifesto, namely, a commitment to showcasing aesthetic excellence on this site. His book is beautifully written.

In terms of format, the symposium will involve a leading group of experts. In keeping with my commitment to promoting conversation between scholars, members of civil society and practitioners, I have invited a former Prosecutor of the ad hoc tribunals, others who have worked as senior practitioners, two very prominent members of civil society, and academics from leading institutions. The resulting group of experts come at these issues from different starting points and offer contrasting perspectives.

The result, I hope you’ll agree, is a truly fascinating set of reflections on this historic institution.

Life in the Global Public Domain: Response to Commentaries

John G. Ruggie is the Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Affiliated Professor in International Legal Studies at Harvard Law School, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. From 1997-2001 he served as the first-ever UN Assistant Secretary-General for Strategic Planning, where his responsibilities included establishing the UN Global Compact and proposing and gaining General Assembly approval for the Millennium Development Goals. From 2005-2011 he was the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Business and Human Rights, in which capacity he developed the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. His book reflecting on that experience, entitled Just Business: Multinational Corporations and Human Rights (W.W. Norton, 2013), has been translated into Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, and Spanish.

As the author of the United Nations Guiding Principles (GPs), I am honored that so distinguished a group of scholars has agreed to address them in this symposium. They do so not only from a policy perspective but also on deeper conceptual, legal and even philosophical grounds. I am particularly pleased that several of the commentators recognize that the heterodox nature of the GPs is necessitated by fundamental changes in the system of global governance and law-making of which human rights traditionalists may be unaware, tend to ignore or fail to understand.

Foundational Logics

Before responding to the commentaries, allow me to provide some of the intellectual and policy context within which the GPs were conceived, because their text alone cannot possibly convey it. In developing them over the course of a six year UN mandate, involving nearly fifty international consultations, extensive research and pilot projects, I had no interest in producing a piece of paper that would gather dust (or whatever electronic files gather) on library or scholars’ shelves. I strove to achieve what Professors Pauwelyn, Wessel and Wouters describe as “thick stakeholder consensus,” in contrast to the “thin state consent” that so often emerges from intergovernmental negotiations.[i] And I then hoped to leverage that consensus into “endorsement” by the UN Human Rights Council, adding to the GPs’ authoritative stature, helping to achieve their uptake by other international standard setting bodies, and embedding them in the global regulatory ecosystem for business and human rights.

In the event, the Council’s reception was unprecedented: never before had it endorsed a normative text that governments did not negotiate themselves. International uptake of key elements was swift: by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the European Union, the International Organization of Standardization, the International Finance Corporation, the Human Rights Commission of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the General Assembly of the Organization of American States, and the African Union, as well as by scores of individual states and businesses—even by the American and International Bar Associations. Some of the measures that have already been adopted include binding legal and policy requirements, with penalties for non-compliance.

But here comes a confession: these things involved politics. I state it openly in my book reflecting on the experience: “Accordingly, the GPs needed to be carefully calibrated: pushing the envelope, but not out of reach.”[ii] For some critics, this is the GP’s original sin, staining them beyond absolution. Thankfully, most observers see it as precisely what enabled long-standing aspiration to be admitted into the realm of actual policy and practice. And when I presented the GPs to the Human Rights Council I stated that its endorsement would not end all business and human rights challenges; but I added that it would mark the end of the beginning, because for the first time there would be a commonly agreed-upon foundation on which to build.

Now on to loftier matters. I next want to elaborate briefly on the idea of “polycentric governance” which the GPs embody because it is not always fully understood but is critical to how the GPs are structured and intended to operate. It rests on the observation that corporate conduct at the global level today is shaped by three distinct governance systems. The first is the traditional system of public law and governance, domestic and international. Important as it is, by itself it has been unable to do all the heavy lifting on this and many other global policy challenges, ranging from poverty eradication to combating climate change. Indeed, formal state-based multilateralism has become harder, not easier in the past decade or so.[iii] The second is a system of civil governance involving stakeholders affected by business enterprises and employing various social compliance mechanisms, such as advocacy campaigns, law suits and other forms of pressure, but also partnering with companies to induce positive change. The third is governance by business enterprises of their own affairs, which internalizes elements of the other two. In the case of multinational corporations, corporate governance so conceived is a distinct transnational law-making system in its own right—the private law of contracts, with direct consequences that can equal and in many cases surpass the scale and effectiveness of public governance in particular issue areas.[iv] Thus, the intellectual and policy challenge as I saw it was to try and formulate an authoritative basis whereby the three forms of governance systems become better aligned in relation to business and human rights, compensate for one another’s shortcomings and begin to play mutually reinforcing roles, out of which cumulative change can evolve over time. From the outset I rejected the voluntary/mandatory dichotomy that had paralyzed creative thinking and policymaking for too long, and insisted that “a smart mix of measures” would be required to get from here to there.

To foster alignment among the three governance systems, the GPs deliberately draw on the different discourses and rationales that reflect the different social roles they play in regulating corporate conduct. Thus, for states the emphasis is on the legal obligations they have under the international human rights regime to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including business, as well as policy rationales that are consistent with, and supportive of, meeting those obligations. For businesses, beyond compliance with legal obligations, the GPs focus on the need to manage the risk of involvement in human rights abuses, which requires that companies act with due diligence to avoid infringing on the rights of others and address harm where it does occur. For affected individuals and communities, the GPs stipulate ways for their further empowerment to realize their rights to remedy where negative impacts occur. This multi-perspectivalism too has caused puzzlement if not consternation among traditionalists.


Drawing these foundational elements together, the GPs rest on three distinct but what I hoped would become dynamically interrelated pillars:

  1. The state duty to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including business, through appropriate policies, regulation, and adjudication;
  2. An independent corporate responsibility to respect human rights, which means that business enterprises should act with due diligence to avoid infringing on the rights of others and to address adverse impacts with which they are involved;
  3. Greater access by victims to effective remedy, judicial and non-judicial.

The thirty-one principles, each with commentary, elaborate the meaning of these foundational elements and their implications for law, policy, and practice. For its part, the Human Rights Council didn’t simply endorse a general idea; its endorsement covered the specific guidance that the GPs stipulate.

This approach may come more naturally to a political scientist than to human rights lawyers, ethical theorists or advocacy groups. In his commentary, John Tasioulas identifies several of what he calls “dogmas” that have limited past efforts to strengthen the international protection of human rights against corporate abuse: statism, legalism, a failure to recognize that human rights globally can only be secured through forms of polycentric governance, the growing fragmentation of international law and of the international political order—to which I would add the passionate belief on the part of some that certain human rights protections already “exist” in some ethereal sense, when the battle precisely is how to bring them into being and secure their effectiveness.[v]

Questions about Polycentric Governance

I now turn to the commentaries, taking them up thematically rather than by author. It comes as little surprise that the first concerns polycentric governance. To begin, Tasioulas raises what he calls a “vexing prospect” regarding the GPs corporate pillar. Let me explain. Under the GPs, companies have two types of requirements. One is to comply with all applicable laws. The other is to respect internationally recognized human rights in their own activities and through their business relationships, irrespective of what the host state does or does not do. Apart from legal requirements, the source of this independent corporate responsibility to respect is rooted in social norms and expectations. Tasioulas raises the concern that some societies are resigned to accepting lower expectations than others; he may well be right but we don’t need to debate the point here. More important for present purposes is that from it he infers the fear that “the idea of unitary human rights standards for the entire globe goes by the board.” This misses a critical element of the polycentric governance model.

A decade ago I published an academic article that introduced the concept of “the global public domain.” I described it as “an increasingly institutionalized transnational arena of discourse, contestation and action concerning the production of global public goods, involving private as well as public actors. It does not by itself determine global governance outcomes any more than its counterpart does at the domestic level. But it introduces opportunities for and constraints upon both global and national governance that did not exist in the past.”[vi] The GPs incorporate this understanding. Thus, the social norms and expectations regarding the corporate responsibility to respect are not simply local. The local increasingly is connected to and reinforced within the global public domain, thanks to civil society networks, social media, and the growing recognition by companies themselves in many sectors that enterprise-wide social risk management is in their own best interest.

When Oxfam America funds a community group in Cajamarca, Peru, which organizes protests against the local operation of Newmont Mining, headquartered in Denver, Colorado, and brings the community leader to Newmont’s annual shareholder meetings to make their case to the CEO and the press, those actions unfold in transnational space, not simply separate local spaces. Similarly, when Zambian or Andean communities lodge complaints against Chinese companies, based on social norms and expectations previously established with Western companies in the same or nearby locales, and the Chinese managers request guidance from Beijing, and Beijing’s guidance in turn references the GPs and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, those acts involve transnational space.[vii] The aggregation of such transnational spaces constitutes “the global public domain.”

Surya Deva also observes that “operations of business are no longer constrained by artificial territorial boundaries.” But in contrast to Tasioulas, his understanding of international law-making remains resolutely statist in character. Corporations are merely targets of regulation by the public governance system. In his scheme, they have no role in governance including as transnational law-makers, which is ironic because, at the same time, he insists that multinationals are so much more powerful than many states.

Questions about Scale of Treaty

The second major theme in the commentaries concerns the scope and scale of any international business and human rights treaty, a discussion renewed by the adoption by the Human Rights Council Resolution 26/9 in June 2014, which established an intergovernmental working group “to elaborate an international legally binding instrument to regulate, in international human rights law, the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises.” A “treaty alliance” of some 600 NGOs have signed on in support.[viii]

Before responding to the commentaries on the matter of the proposed treaty, a few basic facts are in order. The resolution’s sponsors were Ecuador and South Africa, supported by Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela. It did not garner a majority of votes in the Council, only a plurality. To obtain even a plurality, the sponsors had to include a footnote in the resolution excluding national firms from the treaty’s scope, notwithstanding its title.[ix] Virtually every major home country of multinationals either voted against the proposal or abstained. China was an exception, but its explanation of vote made it clear that its position hardly differed in substance from other home countries’.[x] Nor can it be said that the vote divided cleanly on North-South lines. For example, apart from the sponsors, all Latin American members of the Council, including Brazil and Mexico, abstained. Under the UN’s informal protocol, abstaining on a resolution pushed strongly by your neighbors can be taken to signify non-support. Finally, the proposal makes no effort to build on the GPs; in fact, the most ardent treaty supporters have done virtually nothing to act on the GPs within their own countries, and some have opposed references to the GPs in other international fora. Instead, the proposal essentially would start the process all over again with the aim of producing a single, overarching legal instrument that, like a silver bullet, promises the resolve business and human rights challenges once and for all.

The European Union and the United States indicated that they will not participate in the negotiations, although I suspect that eventually they will. NGO critics of their position attribute it to corporate influence, which of course cannot be discounted. But they fail to entertain the possibility that there is also something fundamentally flawed with the proposed approach, which on their own analysis has produced repeated failure in the past, and on which I elaborate below.[xi] Ecuador, the main force behind the proposal, estimates that negotiations could take a decade or more. Erika George, in the subtitle of her commentary, cleverly expresses the main challenge we now face as “making the most of the meantime.” But my best guess is that if the current parameters of the resolution and the intent of the treaty sponsors hold fast, one of two outcomes is likely to occur: either the process will drag on like the 1970s UN Code of Conduct for Multinational Corporations negotiations, which were finally abandoned in 1992; or Ecuador and its allies gather enough votes and ratifications from small states to produce an equivalent to the Migrant Workers Convention, which entered into force in 1990 but has not been ratified by a single migrant worker-receiving country—the equivalent in the present case being the major home countries of multinational corporations. By 2025 nearly half of the Global Fortune 500 firms are expected to be domiciled in emerging market countries, further narrowing the North-South divide that some have sought to resurrect in support of the current treaty initiative.[xii]

Now back to the commentaries. Tasioulas notes my long-standing objections to any attempt to shoehorn the entire complex of business and human rights issues into a single, overarching international legal instrument. The brief explanation is that the category of business and human rights involves an enormous range of problem diversity, legal and institutional variations, as well as conflicting interests across and even within states. Therefore, a general business and human rights treaty would have to be pitched at so high a level of abstraction that it would be of little if any use to real people in real places. Jenny Martinez reaches much the same conclusion in her commentary. But Tasioulas as well as Surya Deva and Frederic Megret ask: why doesn’t this objection apply to the GPs? They are comprehensive, involving all states, all businesses and all internationally recognized rights. The answer is simple: because the GPs are not a treaty. Governments would never have endorsed them if they were. The GPs are a “soft law” instrument, which increasingly is how governments make initial moves into highly complex and conflicted issues. Even so, several generally human rights-friendly states needed considerable persuasion to accept certain foundational formulations in the GPs, not merely because they were protecting “their” corporations as might be assumed, but in defense of strongly held legal doctrines and to avoid setting precedents for other, unrelated, matters.[xiii]

The commentators also address my suggestion that, if treaty negotiations are to have any chance of success, they should focus on “carefully constructed precision tools” aimed at specific governance gaps. I first argued this case in a 2007 law journal article.[xiv] In the context of the current treaty debate, I have suggested that an obvious first instance would be corporate involvement in “gross abuses.”[xv] I did so because of the severity of the abuses involved; because the underlying prohibitions already enjoy widespread consensus among states yet there remains considerable confusion about how they should be implemented in practice when it comes to legal persons (think Alien Tort Statute post-Kiobel); and because the knock-on effects for other aspects of the business and human rights agenda would be considerable, as was true of the ATS.

Surya Deva rejects these arguments. He believes that the first takes too constricted a view of the role of international law. I well understand that international law has expressive functions in addition to its regulative role. But there is no shortage of expressive international human rights law. The last thing victims need is a symbolic gesture that makes promises which cannot be kept. What is needed is laws that get implemented and make a difference on the ground. Deva also rejects the focus on gross abuses because it doesn’t cover enough human rights territory (it is “irrelevant whether human rights violations are regarded as ‘gross’ or not,” he states). But the real choice, as Jenny Martinez puts it bluntly in her commentary, is between a first step and no step at all. For my part, I find it unfathomable that in the current international political order states would agree to establish and enforce a single set of global standards for corporate conduct concerning every internationally recognized human right, ranging from extrajudicial killings to providing an adequate work-life balance. And I shudder to think of the damage that would be done to existing human rights standards in the process. At a deeper level, Deva would do well to engage the analysis of scholars such as John Douglas Bishop and scholar-practitioners like Philip Alston and José Alvarez, who have thought seriously about the societal risks of over-extending legal human rights obligations to corporations.[xvi] In short, like it or not, making choices about the substantive focus of a treaty is inevitable; the only question is who makes them, on what basis and with which consequences.

Tasioulas and James Stewart also raise questions about the “gross abuses” focus, but of a more technical nature. Both assume that addressing gross abuses would require states to establish a standard of corporate criminal liability as a matter of international or national law. This, Tasioulas fears, would “obscure the need for other sorts of responses, such as compensation.” But criminalization is not necessary. While the trend to recognize criminal liability of legal persons has been increasing, a number of countries still do not do so. Following the kinds of approaches adopted in the OECD and UN anti-bribery conventions, states would be free to consider appropriate forms of liability in line with the fundamental principles of their national legal systems, which could include civil or administrative liability, with corporate dissolution as the ultimate penalty. Compensation could also be made available, and the liability of legal persons could be without prejudice to criminal liability of natural persons who may have contributed to the corporation’s liability.

Moreover, while it is true that it remains unclear how far a treaty instrument on gross abuses would reach in addressing serious violations of social and economic rights, it certainly would encompass a number of grave harms in which business enterprises have been involved, including slavery and slavery-like practices, such as forced and bonded labor, both of which remain widespread.[xvii] In any case, bear in mind that the burden of my argument has been that international legal instruments in business and human rights should address specific governance gaps. Gross abuses are but one plausible instantiation. Erika George suggests additional ideas that are well worth considering.

Questions about Remedy

Understandably, the third theme that runs through the commentaries is the challenge of providing effective remedy for victims, particularly judicial remedy. The GPs, like every NGO report on the subject that I’ve ever read, are better at decrying inadequate access to judicial remedy than fixing it. GP 25 affirms that providing access to effective remedy is part and parcel of the state duty to protect against human rights abuses within their jurisdiction. The GPs go on to identify obstacles, and urge states to take steps to overcome them. Clearly this is not enough to ensure that it happens in practice, as I have readily acknowledged. What the treaty sponsors and advocates have in mind, however, is comprehensive forms of extraterritorial jurisdiction under international human rights law. Here too we enter very tricky terrain.

The Commentary to GP 2 summarizes, based on extensive research, what I believed to be international law and practice at the time of writing: “At present States are not generally required under international human rights law to regulate the extraterritorial activities of businesses domiciled in their territory and/or jurisdiction. Nor are they generally prohibited from doing so, provided there is a recognized jurisdictional basis.”[xviii] Being grounded in a multilateral agreement, the Commentary goes on to say, would provide one such jurisdictional basis. But this brings us right back to the scale of a treaty. Sit back for a moment and ponder the following two questions: for how many internationally recognized human rights do you believe states would endorse extraterritorial jurisdiction? Even more important for a symposium such as this, for how many rights should they do so? Does anyone expect, and should we want, extraterritorial jurisdiction to prevail across the entire range of internationally recognized rights? In my view, the answer to both questions is a resounding “no.”

That states would not agree requires little elaboration. While some UN human rights treaty bodies have urged home states of multinationals to provide greater extraterritorial protection against certain corporate-related human rights abuses, and research conducted under my mandate identified the grounds on which, and the ways in which, states have done so in a number of related policy domains, state conduct generally makes it clear that they do not regard this to be an acceptable means to address violations of the entire array of internationally recognized human rights. It makes little difference whether the states in question are located in the North, South, East, West or whatever azimuth one prefers to reference. Therefore, once again choices have to be made.

That it is an intrinsically bad idea undoubtedly will be more controversial for some. Deva ends his commentary by proposing a Business and Human Rights Declaration, similar to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He insists that it must “assert the normative hierarchy of human rights and human rights instruments vis-à-vis other areas/instruments.” I have no principled objection to a Declaration. But if that same hierarchy were established in a legally binding international instrument and coupled with extraterritorial jurisdiction, it would utterly incapacitate national and local governments from conducting the often extensive number and variety of trade-offs that the very act of governance requires. Policy choices typically do not come neatly packaged, with human rights on one side and “other areas/instruments” on the other. They may involve conflicts between different human rights themselves. Moreover, “other areas/instruments” can equally implicate human rights, of different rights-holders, say, or over different temporal horizons. No single treaty could possibly resolve these complex interactions, so it would be left to each state to take its own approach to enforcement. But that would simply produce confusion and conflicting outcomes, and in some cases chaos, not uniform practices.

In sum, if we accept, as elementary logic requires, that not all internationally recognized human rights would or should trigger extraterritorial jurisdiction, then which ones? As a matter of record, extraterritorial jurisdiction in cases of gross abuses when committed by natural persons has greater international support than any other human rights-related abuse. In principle, this ought to make it easier to forge agreement for clarifying that the same prohibitions apply to legal persons, thus reinforcing the argument for a focus on corporate involvement in gross abuses.

At present, the most promising practical development on the legal remedy front comes as a result of a second resolution the Human Rights Council adopted in June 2014 (HRC 26/22), introduced by Norway and adopted by consensus (meaning that it required no vote). Among other things, it requests the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to explore “the full range of legal options and practical measures to improve access to remedy for victims of business-related human rights abuses” and, in collaboration with the expert working group that was established to succeed my mandate, to organize consultations among all relevant stakeholders—which will include national investigators and prosecutors who struggle with these issues in their daily work. This could inform the treaty process if the sponsors were willing to draw on it. If the treaty negotiations make no progress, then perhaps it could come to serve as a basis for a constructive alternative initiative.

Whatever one’s preferences may be regarding the specifics of a binding international legal instrument, everyone agrees that legal reform is difficult and takes time. But remedy is not limited to punishment. It may also include apologies, restitution, rehabilitation, financial or non-financial compensation, as well as prevention of harm through, for example, guarantees of non-repetition. Alternative dispute resolution techniques can play a critical role in this regard. Accordingly, the GPs also stressed the importance of promoting forms of non-judicial remedy. GP 31, the longest of the entire set, lays out effectiveness and legitimacy criteria to which such mechanisms must adhere.

Non-judicial mechanisms can be state-based, as in the case of administrative labor tribunals, or the National Contact Points under the OECD Guidelines, which included the GPs’ corporate responsibility to respect pillar in the Guidelines’ 2011 revision, and which have witnessed a spike in human rights-based complaints since. They can also involve grievance mechanisms that companies establish at local and/or corporate levels as many are doing, or collaboratively. Effective company-related grievance mechanisms can serve two important functions. First, they can make it possible for grievances to be addressed early and directly when and where they occur, thereby preventing harms from compounding and grievances from escalating. Second, they can serve as an early-warning system for companies, enabling them to adapt their practices accordingly. Many such operational level grievance procedures remain a work in progress that are still being tested (and in some cases contested by activist groups and plaintiffs lawyers). But for now they fall neatly into Erika George’s category of “making the most of the meantime.” And if they succeed, in the long run they will serve as a significant complement to whatever international legal regime may evolve, just as they do at the domestic level in even the most robust legal systems.

Concluding Thoughts

Much more could be said about the thoughtful commentaries this symposium has brought together, and the broader issues at stake. But in concluding I limit myself to two points. The first is to reiterate the important contributions of Amartya Sen to my understanding of human rights, which John Tasioulas notes in his commentary. Sen insists that human rights are much more than laws’ antecedents or progeny. Indeed, he states, such a view threatens to “incarcerate” the social logics and processes other than law that drive public recognition of rights.[xix] My work, including the Guiding Principles, has sought to contribute to the freeing of human rights discourse and practice from these conceptual shackles, by drawing on the interests, capacities and engagement of states, market actors, civil society, and the intrinsic power of ideational and normative factors. Second, now that negotiations on an international legal instrument are about to commence, my sole concerns are that they build on what has already been achieved, not undermine it; and that the effort be meaningful and actionable where it matters most: not in legal treatises, journals of ethics, or the mesmerizing effects that the word “binding” has on the critical faculties of many committed activists, but in the daily lives of people—and not in some far-off promised future that may or may not ever materialize, but starting in the here and now.


[i] Joost Pauwelyn, Ramsel A. Wessel and Jan Wouters, “The Stagnation of International Law,” Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies, Working Paper No. 97, October 2012.

[ii] John Gerard Ruggie, Just Business: Multinational Corporations and Human Rights (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013).

[iii] Pauwelyn, Wessel and Wouters report that new multinational treaties have declined precipitously for more than a decade, and that not a single one was deposited with the UN in 2011.

[iv] The most creative work by lawyers on the subject of transnational law-making by multinational corporations with which I am familiar is by Larry Catá Backer, and Jean-Philippe Robé. It is too voluminous to even begin citing here, but see their respective websites:; and Both reference the work of the German sociologist of law Günther Teubner, whose writings on the fragmentation of international law and its implications for “legal regime collision” should be required reading for all students of human rights law. See, for example, Andreas Fischer-Lescano and Gűnther Teubner, “Regime Collision: The Vain Search for Legal Unity in the Fragmentation of International Law,” Michigan Journal of International Law, 25 (2003-2004).

[v] A leading exemplar of this last tendency is David Bilchitz, “A chasm between ‘is’ and ‘ought’? A critique of the normative foundations of the SRSG’s Framework and the Guiding Principles,” in Surya Deva and David Bilchitz, eds., Human Rights Obligations of Business: Beyond the Corporate Responsibility to Respect? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[vi] John Gerard Ruggie, “Reconstituting the Global Public Domain: Issues, Actors, and Processes,” European Journal of International Relations, 10(4): 499–531, citation on p. 519.

[vii] The first example is described in my book, Just Business, p. xli; also see Louis V. Galdieri, “Ruggie and the Red Priest,” available at For the second, see “Guidelines for Outbound Mining Investments,” produced by the China Chamber of Commerce of Metals, Minerals & Chemicals Importers & Exporters, available at

[viii] See

[ix] The resolution is entitled “Elaboration of an international legally binding instrument on transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights.” But the oddly worded footnote defines “other business enterprises” as “all business enterprises that have a transnational character in their operational activities, and does not apply to local businesses registered in terms of relevant domestic law.”

[x] China’s delegate stated that their affirmative vote was based on the following “understanding”: that the issue of a business and human rights treaty is complex; that differences exist among countries in terms of their economic, judicial, and enterprise systems, as well as their historical and cultural backgrounds, which need to be taken into account; and that it will be necessary, therefore, to carry out “detailed and in-depth” studies, and for the treaty process itself to be “gradual” and “inclusive.” See rights council&sort=date.

[xi] A recent NGO survey sums up the overall record since the 1970s: “All these efforts met with vigorous opposition from TNCs and their business associations, and they ultimately failed.” See “Corporate Influence on the Business and Human Rights Agenda of the United Nations,” Working paper issued by Misereor, Global Policy Forum, and Brot für die Welt,” June 2014, p. 5, available at

[xii] The estimate comes from McKinsey; see

[xiii] For example, the United States objected to my stipulation that the state duty to protect applies within a state’s jurisdiction; they insisted that it was limited to its territory—I suspect with Guantanamo in mind. The UK objected that it did not accept to the idea of a general state duty to protect, that this was strictly a treaty-specific obligation. Sweden objected to the inclusion of an independent corporate responsibility to respect human rights because it feared that it would detract from state obligations. And so it went, even with friendly states. I managed to satisfy the U.S. by changing the referent to “jurisdiction and/or territory.” The UK agreed that it would express its reservation in explaining its vote after the fact, which did not affect its endorsement. In the case of Sweden, thanks to personal relations with higher officials the objections of legal advisors were withdrawn. The UK subsequently released a letter sent to me by the Legal Advisor at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, so I also released my response. They are available at; and

[xiv] John Gerard Ruggie, “Business and Human Rights: The Evolving International Agenda,” American Journal of International Law, 101 (October 2007).

[xv] See, for example, my blogs “A Business and Human Rights Treaty? International Legalization as Precision Tools,” available at; and “Quo Vadis? Unsolicited Advice to Business and Human Rights Treaty Sponsors,” available at

[xvi] John Douglas Bishop, “The Limits of Corporate Human Rights Obligations and the Rights of For-Profit Corporations,” Business Ethics Quarterly, 22 (January 2012); Philip Alston, “The ‘Not-a-Cat Syndrome: Can the International Human Rights Regime Accommodate Non-State Actors?” in Alston, ed., Non-State Actors and Human Rights (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); and José E. Alvarez, “Are Corporations ‘Subjects’ of International Law,” available at

[xvii] Conceivably one might be able to make the case that systematic and widespread patterns of corporate-related involvement in what the ILO defines as the worst forms of child labor be included: “(a) all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as the sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage and serfdom and forced or compulsory labour, including forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict; (b) the use, procuring or offering of a child for prostitution, for the production of pornography or for pornographic performances; (c) the use, procuring or offering of a child for illicit activities, in particular for the production and trafficking of drugs as defined in the relevant international treaties; (d) work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children.”–en/index.htm

[xviii] On this and related points, also see John H. Knox, “The Ruggie Rules: Applying Human Rights Law to Corporations,” in Radu Mares, ed., The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff, 2012). Knox, a professor international law, currently serves as UN Independent Expert on Human Rights and the Environment.

[xix] See Amartya Sen, “Human Rights and the Limits of the Law,” Cardoso Law Review, 27 (No. 6, 2006); “Elements of a Theory of Human Rights,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, 32 (Autumn 2004); and The Idea of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009).

Would a Treaty Be All It Is Made Up to Be?

Frédéric Mégret is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law, McGill University and the Canada Research Chair on the Law of Human Rights and Legal Pluralism

In moving towards the negotiation of a treaty on business and human rights, the international human rights movement is on familiar terrain. Indeed, legalization has represented a hallmark of the movement’s strategy ever since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “From declarations to conventions” seems to be the natural direction that the project has been taking for decades. The International Covenants for example were a specific response to the perceived limitations of the UDHR. There is a time for politics, and there is a time for law. Human rights both domestically and internationally are fundamentally invested in the idea that the move from policy to binding standards is indispensable.

The move to a treaty on business and human rights should therefore not come as a surprise. No doubt it has some things to commend it. At the same time, doubts are already being voiced about whether it is a good idea. Some of these doubts may have to do with perceived hidden motivations for proposing a treaty, and the sort of substantive instrument that might result. For example, there is concern that the current treaty agenda reflects an anti-business bias, seeking to draw attention away from the responsibilities of the host state at the expense of the state of incorporation and transnational businesses themselves. Violations of human rights as a result of the activities of corporations result from a complex chain of causation that may include predatory corporate actors, but also irresponsible states on both ends (sending, receiving). The balance achieved in the Guiding Principles is a fragile one and there is a risk that it might be disrupted. The interstate environment in which treaties are negotiated might resurrect South-North antinomies that today are not the most helpful when it comes to the question of business and human rights. As Ruggie points out helpfully, whether a corporation is “transnational” or not is increasingly irrelevant. If nothing else, a human rights paradigm ought to inform a more cosmopolitan approach (as it has for most existing human rights treaties) one which is as much focused on the domestic as the transnational.

Nonetheless, it is far too early to anticipate what the eventual substance of a Treaty on business and human rights might be. Fears about its orientation are not really a reason for not having a treaty at all, only a reason to fight to have as good a treaty as possible. The real question at this stage is whether there is something inherently problematic about having a treaty as opposed to the Guiding Principles as they stand. And if one is to look for an inherent problem with having a treaty, it must be a problem with a treaty as a form. Although the Guiding Principles would presumably not be eliminated merely as a result of the emergence of a treaty, they would most likely be sidelined, or at least cease to reflect the global consensus alone, especially if the treaty was comprehensive. Here the question is whether, as in the traditional human rights vision, “Guiding Principles” were always a second best to a treaty, or whether there is something in the notion of Guiding Principles that is inherently appealing as a regulatory model when it comes to that particular topic (business and human rights) and in the current conditions (largely post-national and post-modern). I take John Ruggie’s Harvard piece as ambivalent on this very issue, at the same time not ruling out the need for a treaty yet cautiously trying to defend the sui generis character of the Guideline and the need to stay true to their “regulatory dynamics.” As I am in broad agreement with that cautious attitude, I want to suggest three ways in which we might see a comprehensive treaty as problematic.

A first concern might be what one might call the untranslatability of the Guiding Principles project into the language of a human rights treaty. As a human rights instrument, an international treaty on multinational corporations would be an almost unprecedented treaty focused not on proclaiming certain rights or protecting certain groups (as has traditionally been the case), but on imposing obligations upon a certain category of actors. It would therefore be more a treaty on obligations than on rights, even though the implementation of the obligations would be presumed to lead to the fulfillment of the rights. The combination of rights and duties is, admittedly, not unprecedented and, in fact, increasingly common. For example the Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities is a very mixed bag of rights proclamation and insistence on certain standards that states, local authorities and private actors ought to respect to make the rights of persons with disabilities a reality. However at stake is clearly a change in the style of human rights and it may be that something is lost by legalizing too many things, in ways that reflect international legislative inflation and perhaps a move away from the parsimony of rights. In other words, one might think there should be an international regulatory division of labour between human rights treaties (that remain at the level of quasi-constitutional principles) and implementing instruments (guidelines, corporate guides of conduct) that seek to chart the many ways in which treaties ought to be implemented.

A second perhaps more significant concern might be that the move to a treaty does too much of the promise of legal bindingness and therefore the prospect of enforceability. There is no doubt that currently there continues to exist huge gaps in the sort of accountability that victims of corporate rights violations can hope to obtain. The question, however, is whether this is because of the absence of a treaty. In practice, for example, it is not clear that simply because treaties are binding in Law means that they are regularly or systematically enforced. There is by now two decades of theoretical and empirical literature on whether treaties improve human rights compliance that is at best inconclusive. Note that the issue of whether human rights treaties induce compliance generally is distinct from whether they can command compliance in particular cases: the latter may be true even as the former is not, in the sense that one can evidently win an individual case under a treaty on the basis of its binding character even as that treaty is otherwise regularly ignored. In practice the existence of a treaty may or may not be the focus of strategies to promote human rights, but many such efforts do not particularly rely on its binding character (except rhetorically). In fact, as pointed out by Ruggie, the Guiding Principles have already become influential (with international institutions for example) largely despite not being binding. It is no small feat, in particular, that a non-binding international instrument has already translated into binding legislation, where many binding treaties are never incorporated into domestic law.

The lesson is that at least when it comes to that issue area, orienting institutional change may be more important than imposing it. At least as important to treaty compliance is the extent to which treaties set realistic standards or have a degree of legitimacy with the actors whose behaviour they claim to regulate. But herein lies the crux: bindingness, of course, is not everything. One might have standards that are scrupulously observed only because they are so low in the first place, something that would hardly count as a victory for human rights. In that sense human rights might be said to be at an implicit disadvantage in international normative competition since they start from a certain axiological high ground rather than simply some promise of rational-efficiency. At any rate, the binding character of a treaty might be obtained only at the cost of diluted standards, as states awaken to some of the legal ramifications of a treaty entering into force; or a treaty might be “strong” but fail to secure the participation of key states (as happened with the Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers), a potentially disastrous result when it comes to transnational corporations. The move to a treaty, in other words, might destroy some of the constructive ambiguity upon which the Guiding Principles were based and signal, paradoxically, a decline in the implementation of the standards it champions.

Third, moving to the treaty form may effectively redefine the nature of the regulation involved, beyond the question of whether the resulting standards are binding or not. The “treatification” of the Guiding Principles might be seen as pushing in two, not necessarily compatible directions. On the one hand, the existence of a treaty directly regulating multinational corporations might be said to reinforce the status of such corporations as, henceforth, fully fledged subjects of international law and not merely entities producing their own form of endogenous regulation existing in a grey transnational normative zone. This strengthens the idea of corporations as human rights actors in their own right (even if substantively the treaty remains focused on their respecting rather than protecting human rights), in ways that can only challenge the state’s centrality. Given how vexed an issue the status of corporations as subjects of international law has been, a treaty – whatever else it does substantively – might at least clarify this issue. An alternative way of looking at it is that the adoption of a treaty would manifest a strong return of the “public” and an emphasis on the role of the state in regulating non-state actors. This at least is implicit in the idea that treaties’ source of authority is sovereign consent to them. Multinational corporations, even though they would be presumably regulated by the treaty and even though they would presumably lobby states both directly and indirectly, would not be a party to the treaty itself. Under this view, they would ultimately appear more as objects than subjects where one of the merits of the Guiding Principles was to put them at the centre of the regulatory effort that focused on them, thus presumably encouraging ownership and accountability.

In other words, the move to a treaty is a move to “normalize” the regulation of corporations within the vernacular of public international law and away from the sort of “private ordering” that has become a hallmark of the regulation of corporations today. It thus arguably does away with one of the central features of the Guiding Principles as a hybrid instrument at least partly “owned” by corporations. As such, one can wonder whether the move to a treaty does not manifest a form of failure of legal imagination. Is it so difficult to imagine a global instrument that would be binding under international law yet not restricted by nature to state membership?

A First Step is Better than No Step at All

Jenny S. Martinez is the Warren Christopher Professor in the Practice of International Law and Diplomacy at Stanford Law School. She is the author of The Slave Trade and the Origins of International Human Rights Law (OUP, 2012).

Last year, the U.N. Human Rights Council voted to “establish an open-ended intergovernmental working group with the mandate to elaborate an international legally binding instrument on Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with respect to human rights.” The objective of this working group would be to “clarify the obligations of transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights.” The new initiative has largely been supported by states in the Global South, while the United States and the European Union have opposed the treaty effort on the grounds that it is unlikely to succeed and will divert attention from implementation of the non-binding but widely discussed Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The Guiding Principles were, of course, spearheaded by John Ruggie when he was the U.N. Special Representative for Business and Human Rights, and endorsed by the Human Rights Council in 2011.

Last December at the U.N. Forum on Business and Human Rights, however, Ruggie himself resisted this framing of the path forward, saying that he “saw no intrinsic contradiction between implementing the Guiding Principles, on the one hand, and further international legalization, on the other” and urging “in the strongest possible terms that as the treaty negotiations unfold, we resist any attempt to polarize the debate as one between the Guiding Principles and a treaty.”

Ruggie is correct that, in principle, there need be no contradiction between pursuit of the voluntary implementation of the non-binding principles as to some aspects of the human rights obligations of businesses and simultaneous negotiation of binding international legal obligations as to other aspects. In practical terms, however, the danger is that the treaty drafting process will slowly limp forward without resulting in a document with any legal bite, while giving states and businesses an excuse to abandon all effort to implement the Guiding Principles. How can this trap be avoided?

Ruggie is right to suggest that the best path forward may be through narrower, more focused agreements on specific topics rather than one overarching treaty that attempts to govern the entire field. A single treaty is likely to be rich in aspiration and weak on detail and tools for implementation. Moreover, narrower and more specific treaties might be more likely to garner eventual ratifications from initially skeptical states.

What kinds of problems might treaties address, and how might they do so? One comparison might be the ILO Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, which was adopted by the ILO in 1999 and has now been ratified by 174 countries (the fastest pace for ratification of any ILO agreement). In that treaty, states obligate themselves to take “immediate and effective measures to secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour as a matter of urgency.” Contrast with the murky language of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, wherein a ratifying state “undertakes to take steps, individually and through international assistance and co-operation, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant.” While intrepid international lawyers have attempted for decades to give teeth to this vague language through forceful and elaborate interpretations, the basic mushiness remains.

Moreover, rather than relying on lofty generalities, the ILO child labor treaty lists several concrete practices — such as slavery, debt bondage, forcible use of child soldiers, and prostitution — that automatically constitute worst forms of child labor, while also including more open-ended definitions that encompass abuses of similar gravity. It is much easier to tell whether a state has prohibited five very concrete things than to tell whether it has achieved a much vaguer goal like promoting equality. Moreover, concrete goals provide a rallying point for domestic political advocacy, as civil society groups can lobby for adoption of legislative and administrative measures in compliance with the international standard.

Now, it would be a mistake to treaty the ILO Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labor as a model treaty, because despite its wide ratification, it is not clear how successful it has been. Despite its immediate and binding language, and sharp definition of certain prohibited practices, the lack of a strong international enforcement mechanism is a problem. A more effective treaty would provide stronger means for monitoring, measuring and enforcement.

A good start in the area of business and human rights would be a treaty focused on the worst types of abuses, such as corporate actors knowingly aiding and abetting core international crimes as defined in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Such a treaty would oblige states to take immediate measures in domestic law to prohibit and provide for appropriate civil and criminal liability for such abuses.  It would provide for some kind of international monitoring and oversight, and might include jurisdictional provisions clarifying which states would have obligations and would be entitled to exercise jurisdiction in the case of corporate actors whose activities span multiple jurisdictions. Would such a treaty lead us to a perfect world? Would it address fundamental issues of distributional justice between global north and global south, between the haves and have nots of globalization? Of course not. But a first step is better than no step at all, and it would be a sensible place to start the effort of moving from soft to hard law in this arena. Such a focused treaty would be more likely to garner support from wary countries, and if it clarified jurisdictional rules, could even gain support from businesses because it would bring greater predictability and clarity.   This would not preclude simultaneous efforts to implement the Guiding Principles, nor would it preclude later treaties addressing other aspects of business and human rights. The long-term questions raised by the relationship between business and human rights will ultimately require long-term solutions, but this would be a sensible place to start.

A New Instrument on “Gross” Violations? Enthusiasm and Apprehension

I join this fascinating discussion to offer reflections on Professor Ruggie’s interesting proposal for “a legal instrument addressing corporate involvement in the category of “gross” human rights violations.” As someone whose work focuses on the relationship between commerce, atrocity and international criminal law (“ICL”), I applaud Professor Ruggie’s consistent expressions of interest in this relationship, and his desire to play a proactive role in moving this type of accountability forward. His desire coincides with a range of new initiatives that share similar aspirations: in one recently launched by the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR), of which I am a member, a group of experts plans to explore the sorts of problems (legal, investigative and practical) that impede prosecutions of these sorts. In another, recently announced by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, ICL will feature as one part of a wider and longer project investigating best practices in corporate accountability for “gross” human rights abuses.

Neither of these twin initiatives advocates for the promulgation of a new treaty; both contemplate building frameworks similar to the UN Guiding Principles, that work with pre-existing legal tools. By contrast, the idea of a “new instrument” attempts to break new ground, presumably in treaty form. A treaty would certainly offer a number of benefits. A single instrument addressing corporate responsibility for “gross” human rights violations could help in producing clear, uniform law that provides helpful guidance to businesses and human rights advocates alike. A treaty could identify and confront barriers to justice, including the cost of financing litigation, difficulties with investigative capacity or the absence of a regulatory level playing field globally. It could also be helpful in recommending divisions of labor between home and host countries, such that everything from evidence acquisition to conduct of trial and enforcement of sentences is better coordinated. All of these features are salutary, important, and worth pursuing.

This said, I want to express a series of countervailing dangers involved in codifying a new instrument on corporate responsibility for “gross” violations of human rights, in the hopes that attempts at generating a legal instrument like this are appraised of the possible pitfalls that await. In a way, my concerns are reminiscent of David Kennedy’s Dark Sides of Virtue—the idea that while human rights initiatives frequently bring about a great deal of good into the world, at a very minimum, they must make conscious and address (if possible) their potential downsides. In what follows, I expand on several of these, in ways that I hope act as a friendly caution to those involved in this laudable project.

The first concern stems from how we understand “gross” violations. I appreciate “gross violations of human rights” is something of a term of art in the field, and that the UN General Assembly and others have adopted definitions that equate “gross” violations with ICL to avoid the ambiguities of separating more fundamental human rights from less. Whether ICL and “gross” human rights overlap perfectly or just substantially, there is a sense that these two sisters of international law are again lifting one another up. If some (not Moyn) see Nuremberg as the genesis of both international human rights and ICL, perhaps modern initiatives focused on civilizing business, such as this new instrument, can replicate the catalytic effect between the two fields. Personally, I see this possibility in positive terms, but we should also pause to observe the potential downsides.

For one reason, ICL is a relatively poor vehicle for enforcing economic, social and cultural rights. In its early years, the ICTY flirted with including violations of economic, social and cultural rights in its understanding of persecution as a crime against humanity, but that approach has received a mixed welcome, and by and large, is not close to adequately protecting systemic violations of economic, social and cultural rights. The mismatch between ICL and “gross” violations of human rights would cut the other way too. It’s unclear for instance, whether pillage of natural resources (a primary mechanism for modern conflict financing) constitutes a “gross” human rights violation within the meaning this new instrument would adopt, even though it is unquestionably an international crime that has deleterious consequences for civilian populations in many corners of the world. From the foregoing, one is left wondering whether a focus on “gross” human rights violations will do full justice to human rights or ICL?

And how about national law? Over the summer, a colleague and I sat through the entire Blackwater trial in Washington D.C. (see initial commentary here and a presentation here), in part, because we saw it as a pivotal moment for the idea of home states holding their own corporate officers accountable for conduct that amounts to international crimes perpetrated in foreign war zones. I say “amounts to” because the Blackwater trial was most striking in one respect: it made not an iota of reference to international law at any point. This purely American criminal trial could have constituted a corporate war crime case if charged as such, but instead, the US Attorney’s preferred to employ different, local offenses in providing a judicial response to the gross (corporate) human rights violations that transpired in Baghdad that day.

Still, the Blackwater trial should still count as a judicial response to “gross” human rights violations by a corporation, no? The trial is a remarkable example of the accountability the business and human rights movement aspires to, absent only the reference to international law. Surely we aren’t so wedded to international law that we deprive it of this status. The question for the new instrument then becomes, how would a treaty governing business and “gross” violations of human rights address purely domestic trials like this, that make no mention of human rights of international crimes at all. Is there not a danger that the new category of “gross” violations obscures more than it clarifies?

Leaving the scope of this new treaty to one side, what of the implications for ICL of a new treaty governing “gross” violations of human rights? A new instrument could allow a wholesale departure from previous standards in ICL that already rightly implicate private actors. This anxiety isn’t purely academic—one of the reasons we do not see new treaties governing International Humanitarian Law presently is that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) knows full well that opening up the Geneva Conventions in a post-September 11 world will lead to a net diminution of humanitarian protections. Are we certain that a similar process will not transpire for “gross” corporate violations of human rights, in ways that push the two bodies of international law further underground rather than lifting them up?

One idea is that a new instrument governing corporate responsibility for “gross” violations of human rights could contain an entirely compartmentalized set of principles that apply to businesses and their representatives, leaving ICL entirely unaffected. Yet, this idea of a segregated regime could pose both symbolic and substantive problems. At the level of symbolism, why should there be a separate category for one set of actors, when they are already bound by pre-existing doctrine in ICL itself? Does this preferential treatment imply that business is normatively or morally privileged? Although I’m sometimes tempted by Jules Coleman’s argument that markets deserve special moral deference because they stabilize notions of the good that we cannot otherwise agree on, overall, I am reluctant to venerate businesspeople over and above politicians, military leaders or other groups capable of committing these crimes.

I suspect that part of the response to these symbolic concerns is that the new instrument will really just focus on harmonizing disparate standards particular to corporations. The problem with this idea is that ICL itself is disparate already, so one can’t harmonize some standards (like complicity) without cutting across pre-existing law. Consequently, if the concern is harmonization, perhaps the task is to harmonize ICL as a whole, or at least portions of it that most closely affect these debates. Over the past years, I have argued that we should adopt a single concept of blame attribution universally (including, but not limited to, complicity) to address some of these problems. Since then, I have set out a set of arguments (see here) for this type of global standardization. Although commerce was a major driver in my thinking, I consistently pitched this claim to the entire field of ICL. The idea of a new instrument to do or encourage this for just business cases is less ambitious, but it does fragment the discipline.

In addition, equating “gross” human rights with ICL brings business and human rights face to face with transitional justice. Up until this point, much of this discussion has assumed a very juridical response to corporate malfeasance. For various reasons I won’t labor here, I believe that judicial responses to this problem are critically important, especially given the immense culture of impunity presently in place. Nonetheless, a number of scholars are less enthusiastic about the fetishization of legal accountability that ICL has brought about. To repackage their concerns into the present context, a new instrument governing gross violations of human rights should not preclude a Truth and Reconciliation Commission instead of a criminal trial, in response, say, to corporate implication in Apartheid South Africa. This poses an interesting tension, however, since we are unequivocally calling for greater judicial-type accountability, including overcoming legal barriers that tend to inhibit it. Those negotiating a new instrument will have to confront this inherent tension.

This brings us to the dangers of “crowding out”. A focus on “gross” violations of human rights could undermine Professor Ruggie’s excellent work on corporations and human rights simpliciter. A new and exciting scholarship is emerging in ICL lamenting the extent to which ICL crowds out other agenda. The moral intensity of atrocity impedes our vision of political economy, colonial history, and human rights performance, all of which also play important causal roles in reproducing mass violence. We simply forget about these other contextual factors in our enthusiasm for sensationalized trials (which arguably do too little to deal with root causes). I have misgivings about this “crowding out” thesis as a critique of ICL (see here), but it is helpful in reminding us of the need to pursue solutions to the problem of business and human rights generally at the same time we develop new tools for the worst types of violations. In other words, our enthusiasm for a new instrument on corporate responsibility for “gross” human rights violations should not obscure the need for deeper structural change and our commitment to pursuing it.

Overall, with respect to “gross” violations at least, one wonders whether the better approach is just to focus on what we already have—the relationship between current ICL and commerce remains very poorly understood, not to mention very infrequently enforced. To be sure, there are upsides to the treaty approach that may outweigh the potential pitfalls I point to; my enthusiasm may win out over my apprehensions depending on the precise parameters of a draft treaty. But however this particular initiative plays out, greater emphasis on the relationship between extant ICL and business will illuminate the possibilities for accountability that already exist, without inviting States back to a negotiating table. In this respect, too, the possibility of a new instrument should not blind us to the work already at hand.

Human Rights, No Dogmas: The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

John Tasioulas is Chair and Director of the Yeoh Tiong Lay Centre for Politics, Philosophy and Law at King’s College London and, during 2014-15, a Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. He is the co-editor of The Philosophy of International Law (OUP, 2010).

The Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (GPs) are a bold and imaginative experiment in human rights governance. It would be premature to hazard a definitive verdict on their overall success in raising the level of human rights compliance among corporations. However, there are promising signs that the principles are becoming entrenched in what John Ruggie has called “the regulatory ecosystem for business and human rights”.[1] Still, I believe we can already conclude that the GPs vividly illustrate the impressive flexibility possessed by human rights as regulatory tools. This is in stark contrast to recent efforts by leading philosophers – including John Rawls, Jürgen Habermas, and Joseph Raz[2] – to regiment the concept of a human right in various ways. The irony is that such exercises in conceptual regimentation are usually advanced on the basis that they reflect the real world practice of human rights. Yet this same practice, as exemplified by innovations such as the GPs, breaks the conceptual shackles that philosophers have sought to place on it, and does so for compelling reasons.

Two dogmas about human rights are especially prominent among these conceptual shackles. The first is the statist dogma that human rights impose obligations exclusively or principally on states. This has the automatic effect of rendering problematic the very idea that business enterprises bear primary, rather than derivative, human rights responsibilities. The other is the legalist dogma that human rights, even if they are not themselves fundamentally legal standards, are to be implemented exclusively or principally through the medium of (enforceable) law. The two dogmas make natural companions, since it is states that play the central legislative role at the global, regional and national levels. And, with respect to international human rights law, at least, states are normally taken to be the only or primary duty-bearers. But even supposing that the two dogmas are faithful to the nature of human rights law, it is doubtful that they are true of human rights understood as underlying moral-political ideals.[3]

The GPs mount a frontal assault on statism by assigning human rights responsibilities to corporations quite independently of any legal or other demands their home or host states may impose on them. Moreover, to the extent that they bear these responsibilities, it is not because corporations are deemed to be ‘state–like’ entities that discharge governmental functions. This is made clear by the fact that the GPs assign corporations and states significantly different responsibilities. States have a governance duty to promote human rights compliance by third parties, for example, through the enactment of human rights laws that bind business enterprises. By contrast, no such governance role is ascribed to corporations. Instead, they are obligated only to respect human rights in their own activities, including in their relationships with third parties. Such respect includes taking appropriate remedial and other measures in response to their human rights violations or those of their partners. These differential responsibilities respond directly to the concern, voiced both within and beyond the business community, that the GPs will lead to an undesirable “privatisation” of human rights. The line between “protect” and “respect” is meant to ensure that corporations are not lumbered with – or, from a different perspective, do not usurp – obligations that properly belong to governments.

The anti-legalism of the GPs is signalled in a number of ways. Although the names, and perhaps the content, of the human rights that corporations should respect are derived from international human rights law, the GPs do not in themselves possess any legal standing. Instead, they are intended to provide an authoritative and publicly acknowledged specification of the human rights responsibilities applicable to corporations. In this way they can act as focal points for co-ordination that help overcome obstacles to human rights compliance on the part of both states and business enterprises. As Ruggie nicely put it in his monograph Just Business, the GPs address the question of “[w]here companies should look for an authoritative enumeration, not of human rights laws that might apply to them, but of human rights they should respect”.[4] This assumes, correctly in my view, that human rights are not fundamentally legal standards, but independent moral-political standards that human rights law often seeks to embody and implement.

But, in fact, the GPs are even more radically anti-legalistic than the previous paragraph suggests. Not only are they not legal standards, we should also not conceive of the GPs as standards that always ought to become law, “laws-in-waiting”, as it were. Indeed, in rare a moment of philosophical self-disclosure in Just Business, Ruggie endorses Amartya Sen’s view that treating human rights either as the progeny or parents of law would “unduly constrict – Sen actually uses the term “incarcerate” – the social logics and processes other than law that drive enduring public recognition of rights”.[5] This idea feeds into Ruggie’s broader conclusion that human rights should be secured through forms of “polycentric governance” in which international and domestic legal mechanisms, in all their diverse manifestations, are one modality of governance among others, with their deployment being dependent on their comparative efficacy.

The general idea that law is just one institutional mechanism for implementing human rights has numerous implications in the GPs. One is a welcome emphasis on fostering a human rights consciousness within the ethos of day-to-day corporate life, primarily by means of embedding routine forms of due diligence geared to identifying, preventing, and addressing adverse impacts on human rights. Another is the idea that business-related human rights violations are to be remedied through non–judicial, as well as formal judicial, grievance mechanisms. Again, the GPs here plausibly challenge the naïve assumption that any human rights violation worthy of the name must always be subject to legal redress. Of course, there are conditions that any adequate non-judicial mechanism will need to satisfy in order to be effective, including safeguards against corporations becoming judges in their own case.

Another important aspect of the GP’s anti-legalism is the idea that significant improvements in human rights compliance by business can be achieved in the absence of a comprehensive legally binding instrument, such as a multilateral treaty on the topic. The objections to such a treaty are a combination of the pragmatic and the principled. Among the pragmatic, there is the dearth of state support for such a treaty or consensus as to its provisions, the inordinate amount of time it would need to be negotiated, and the risk that states will use this delay as an excuse for not taking action. Among the principled, the concern that a universal treaty would either unduly constrain state discretion in striking a balance among competing considerations or, alternatively, that it would be too vague to provide effective guidance.

In line with his appeal to “polycentric governance” and a “smart mix of measures”, Ruggie contends that the GPs can prepare the ground for further legal developments, including the use of more limited treaties as “precision tools”. Elaborating on this suggestion, in his Geneva speech Ruggie proposed that consideration be given to a “legal instrument addressing corporate involvement in the category of “gross” human rights violations”,[6] since this class of human rights abuses is the most severe and its eradication has the backing of a broad international consensus.

I want to conclude by raising two questions about this attractive proposal. The first relates to how the category of “gross” human rights abuses is to be picked out. Ruggie had previously suggested that the category included those violations “that may rise to the level of international crimes, such as genocide, extrajudicial killings, and slavery or slavery-like practices”.[7] However, criminality is a problematic criterion. First, there is considerable variation within the category of international crimes as to both severity and consensus. Piracy, for example, although an international crime, is hardly on the same level of moral turpitude as slavery. One response to this concern is to invoke particularly heinous sub-category of international crimes, such as crimes against humanity. But even assuming that a crimes against humanity approach, with its requirement of a widespread or systematic attack on a civilian population, is not unduly restrictive, another problem remains. Criminality carries the implication that the most appropriate, or even required, remedy is punishment. This will be especially so when grave wrong-doing of the kind entailed by crimes against humanity is in question. Although the punishment of corporations or their officers may often be warranted for their involvement in gross human rights violations, it would be undesirable to obscure the need for other sorts of legal responses, such as injunctions or compensation orders.[8]

In view of the foregoing difficulties, perhaps a superior general criterion for identifying the relevant human rights violations is by reference to norms that enjoy the legal status of jus cogens – international legal norms that bind all states irrespective of their consent. The creation of a more limited treaty on business and human rights could then be seen as one way of discharging the universal obligation on states to secure this special category of rights. This proposal, however, is hostage to the ongoing controversy about which norms, including which human rights norms, qualify as jus cogens. Yet another possibility is to abandon the search for a general criterion and to adopt a more piecemeal and opportunistic approach. Treaties could be established to trouble-shoot particular kinds of corporate human rights violations, e.g. a treaty to combat the targeting of children by the tobacco industry. I suspect the latter, more modest strategy may well be the most effective and realistic in the foreseeable future.

I turn now to my second question about Ruggie’s proposal. One reason he gives for opposing a comprehensive multilateral treaty is its scale: “while business and human rights may be a single label that we attach to a range of activities, it is so vast, diverse, and conflicted an issue area that it does not lend itself though a single set of comprehensive and actionable treaty obligations”.[9] But why is the single set of responsibilities articulated by the GPs any less subject to this objection? Surely they too are supposed to be “comprehensive and actionable”? One possible reason Ruggie may have in mind – and here I am engaging in speculation, partly in the hope that he will disown this interpretation – is that the GPs are more flexible than treaty provisions in being ultimately rooted in “social expectations”. That they are so rooted is an idea that repeatedly crops up in Just Business. But this imagined response raises the vexing prospect that the level of human rights protection afforded by the GPs will vary from society to society depending on nothing more than contingent facts about the “expectations” of the host society. The idea of unitary human rights standards for the entire globe goes by the board. In consequence, Western transnational corporations operating in the less developed countries will be subject to weaker standards, corresponding to the minimal “expectations” of societies accustomed and resigned to oppression. By contrast, non-Western transnational corporations, of which Ruggie rightly points out there is an ever-increasing number, will be held to much higher standards when operating in Western environments. Whatever the advantages of the GPs over a comprehensive multilateral treaty, the licensing of double standards in human rights governance cannot be among them.

[1] J. Ruggie, Closing Plenary Remarks, 3rd UN Forum on Business & Human Rights, Geneva, December 3, 2014.

[2] J. Rawls, The Law of Peoples (Harvard University Press, 1999); J. Habermas, The Postnational Constellation (MIT Press, 2001); J. Raz, ‘Human Rights without Foundations’, in S. Besson and J. Tasioulas (eds), The Philosophy of International Law (OUP, 2010).

[3] J. Tasioulas, ‘On the Nature of Human Rights’, in G. Ernst and J-C Heilinger (eds), The Philosophy of Human Rights: Contemporary Controversies (de Gruyter, 2012), pp.17-59.

[4] J. Ruggie, Just Business: Multinational Corporations and Human Rights (WW Norton & Co, 2013), p.96.

[5] J. Ruggie, Just Business, p.xxxv.

[6] J. Ruggie, “Closing Plenary Remarks”, p.7.

[7] J. Ruggie, “A UN Business and Human Rights Treaty?”, 28 January 2014, p.5.

[8] For sage reflections on the ‘awkward fit’ between human rights and criminal law, see O. Fiss, The Dictates of Justice: Essays on Law and Human Rights (Republic of Letters, 2011), ch.5.

[9] J. Ruggie, “Closing Plenary Remarks”, p.6.

Incorporating Rights: Making the Most of the Meantime

Erika George is a Professor of Law and Co-Director Center for Global Justice at the S.J. Quinney College of Law of the University of Utah and author of the forthcoming, Incorporating Rights: Corporate Social Responsibility, Conscious Communities and Transnational Orders under contract Oxford University Press.

In June 2014 the U.N. Human Rights Council adopted a resolution establishing an open-ended intergovernmental working group to commence deliberations and draft an international legally binding instrument on transnational corporations. The Council also agreed to extend the mandate of the U.N. Working Group on Business and Human Rights, the entity created to promote the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The Guiding Principles are a non-legally binding set of standards created consistent with an earlier Council mandate to “operationalize” the “Protect, Respect and Remedy Framework.”

The Council’s action advancing treaty talks could be seen as calling into question the durability of the Framework and Guiding Principles or as undermining short and medium term measures to address business and human rights challenges. This would be unfortunate, but as various stakeholders contest the merits of a binding international instrument in light of the Council’s actions many observers are asking: which direction should the business and human rights movement go?

It is now clear that the movement will take parallel paths. Work must proceed on several fronts to ensure that business enterprises align their practices with respect for human rights. However, I believe the movement stands to advance human rights protection farther faster by insisting on more aggressive implementation of the Guiding Principles. In the absence of a binding international agreement, or until one is put in place, I believe future efforts should place emphasis on two things to advance protection: (1) the importance of access to information about business impacts on human rights, and (2) the imperative of access to a fair forum to provide remedy to victims of rights violations.

I do not believe another international human rights treaty will be sufficient to bring about the constructive changes necessary to ensure that human dignity is not disregarded in today’s dynamic global economy. Constructive change will require more than law. It will require that we cultivate ethical business cultures through ensuring that human rights are incorporated into business strategy as a matter of routine daily decision-making. I believe the Guiding Principles provide a more promising path for bringing business conduct into alignment with respect for human rights by contributing to the creation of conditions that could change the culture of global commerce.

In his closing plenary remarks to the Third U.N. Forum on Business and Human Rights in December 2014, the former U.N. Special Representative for Business & Human Rights, Professor John Ruggie, reminded those stakeholders in attendance that the Guiding Principles were simply intended to be the “end of the beginning.” Accordingly, the Guiding Principles should not have been expected to end of all business and human rights challenges.

Indeed, challenges do remain and expectations have not been met. In her closing remarks to the U.N. Forum, Audrey Gaughran, speaking on behalf of Amnesty International, expressed support for an international treaty. She observed that little has changed for the victims of violations since the endorsement of the Guiding Principles. According to Amnesty International, it remains “easy and cheap” for the less socially conscious members of the corporate community to abuse human rights with impunity. In the organization’s experience, businesses continue to “deny and lie” even when confronted with evidence of abuse and only will compensate victims of violations after being compelled to do so by a court of law. The challenges identified by human rights advocates are real and more must be done to address them. Will the treaty proposal get us where we need to be?

Hard law will be hard to devise and it may not be the most appropriate device to address the business and human rights challenges of most urgent concern. Historically, there has been a lack of political support for binding international regulation in this area. For instance, an earlier effort to do so, the UN Draft Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights, drew strong and immediate objections. Political support for future efforts will likely remain weak. Moreover, as Professor Ruggie observed in his remarks to the Forum, business and human rights challenges are myriad: “while business and human rights may be a single label that we attach to a range of activities, it is [a] vast, diverse, and conflicted an issue area that it does not lend itself to governance through a single set of comprehensive and actionable treaty obligations.”

While proponents should not be dissuaded by the difficulty of developing a binding instrument or by political opposition to it, I am not particularly optimistic about the potential of the effort. First, the present proposal is too limited in scope. The focus on the conduct of transnational business organizations fails to appreciate that local businesses also impact human rights and are often linked to global supply chains. This limitation would be a step back from the Framework and Guiding Principles which take into account the risk of harm any commercial enterprise, no matter the size or location, has the potential to place human rights at risk. Second, it is far from clear that obligations set forth in a business and human rights treaty would be adopted or enforced. Several existing binding international human rights legal instruments are simply not enforced.

What the Guiding Principles offer is the potential for international human rights to be operationalized. If business decisions were made with human rights in mind, as the due diligence and impact assessment components of the Guiding Principles detail, many adverse impacts and rights abuses could be avoided in the first instance by those businesses enterprises that care to conduct business consciously.

To date, the Guiding Principles have been underestimated and under utilized. In some instances, the Guiding Principles have been unfairly criticized. Far from foreclosing future developments in laws or policies to address business and human rights challenges, the introduction to the Guiding Principles acknowledges the possibility of “promising longer-term developments” and invites “cumulative progress.” There is encouraging evidence that the Guiding Principles are gaining traction with some governments and among some segments of the business community that would be well situated to develop business practices that respect human rights, pass laws and provide forums for resolving disputes. A treaty will be a long time coming, if ever. In the meantime there must be progress towards advancing human rights protection. What should the business and human rights movement do to make the most of the meantime?

In the context of the treaty proposal, Professor Ruggie has suggested as an initial step consideration of “gross” human rights violations. While I appreciate the political feasibility of taking on the worst abuses first, it is in the banality of the day-to-day decision-making that a real difference can be made. I believe we must begin with more public information about the human rights impacts of particular industries and certain business practices. Exploring binding legal instruments that would require integrated reporting in high impact industry sectors could be a beginning. Transparency is a prerequisite for protecting human rights. Often exposure of abuses ends impunity and can contribute to accountability.

More can be done to promote transformation in business practices through greater transparency about human rights impacts. National Action Plans promoting transparency regulations could serve to bring about the conditions under which soft standards are strengthened. Presently, global supply chains connect conscious consumers and investors with conditions of production they would find unconscionable for the adverse human rights impacts involved.

The promotion of well-crafted transparency regimes requiring reporting about human rights impacts could serve to drive systemic changes by: (1) empowering consumers and investors to make informed choices consistent with their values, and (2) enabling commercial enterprises to address risks practices present to human rights and reverse adverse impacts. Information has an important role to play to in promoting an ethical business culture and preventing abuse—provided there are marketplace or other penalties. Abusing human rights must be made difficult and costly for business enterprise.

Having observed and participated in each annual U.N. Forum the renewed effort to advance a binding instrument did not come as a complete surprise to me. While business stakeholders at the Forum share strategies for developing impact assessments and due diligence programs, the concerns articulated by NGOs have centered on the third pillar of the Framework—access to remedy. The renewed push for a binding instrument is due in significant part to the Framework process falling far short of the expectations of certain stakeholder constituencies, particularly on the issue of access to remedy for victims of rights violations.

Pursuant to the Council Resolution renewing its mandate, the Working Group on Business and Human Rights will launch an inclusive and transparent consultative process with States in 2015 and open to other relevant stakeholders to explore legal and practical measures to improve access to remedy through judicial and non-judicial forums. This will be critically important work if the Guiding Principles and Framework process is to remain credible, particularly to victims of rights violations. Here, I would like to see more attention devoted to strengthening the capacities of the OCED National Contact Points to resolve disputes and more study of the potential reach of extraterritorial jurisdiction to provide access to adjudication of claims. Creating incentives for industry actors to address the issues raised by alleged victims of abuse must also be considered.

Stakeholders in the business and human rights movement speak of a “smart mix” to fix the global governance gap that gives rise to abuses. Hard law may be required to ensure access to remedy to victims, but soft law and standard setting should not be underestimated for preventing violations. To be clear, I do not oppose a treaty in principle. However, I do think the drafters would be well advised to heed the advice offered by Professor Ruggie—a business and human rights treaty should work to reinforce and to build on the regulatory dynamics already underway in the implementation of the Guiding Principles. I do not see the treaty proposal as a threat to progress but rather a call to redouble efforts and to focus attention on the work that still remains to ensure human rights are promoted and protected.


Corporate Human Rights Abuses and International Law: Brief Comments

Surya Deva is an Associate Professor at City University of Hong Kong, School of Law. He has published extensively on various aspects of business and human rights. His recent books include Human Rights Obligations of Business: Beyond the Corporate Responsibility to Respect? (co-edited with David Bilchitz) (Cambridge University Press, 2013) and Regulating Corporate Human Rights Violations: Humanizing Business (Routledge, 2012).

This blog entry offers brief comments on three interrelated aspects: the role of international law in regulating corporate conduct impinging upon human rights, the nature and scope of the proposed international instrument(s), and a potential alternative to move forward. In offering these comments, I will engage with the position taken by Professor John Ruggie on this matter, including his remarks at the 3rd UN Forum on Business and Human Rights held in December 2014.

Role of international law

I consider that international law has a critical role to play in ensuring that business enterprises comply with international human rights norms. There are two main reasons for this: first, operations of business enterprises are no longer constrained by artificial territorial boundaries; second, several states are unwilling or unable to act robustly against powerful corporate actors even within their territory or jurisdiction. As I allude below, an effective response to the second reason would require international law to move beyond an excessively state-centric orientation.

International law’s critical role is not, however, as a stand-alone device. Rather, international law should be part of a number of regulatory initiatives invoked in tandem to tame propensity of profit-driven corporations to ignore human rights. Ruggie calls this regulatory design a “smart mix of measures”. I see it in terms of an “integrated theory of regulation” in which multiple regulatory measures are employed in a cumulative and coordinated manner so that different initiatives could counter each other’s limitations (Surya Deva, Regulating Corporate Human Rights Violations: Humanizing Business, Routledge, 2012).

Against this background, the proposed international instrument(s) – in order to be useful – should cover the deficiencies and limitations of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (GPs) in humanizing business. Ruggie would like future regulatory legalisation to “reinforce and build” on the GPs. But I will caution that the process of reinforcement and building must not gloss over or strengthen the GPs’ deficiencies and limitations, e.g., that corporate human rights responsibilities are based solely on social expectations, that states only have a “duty to protect” against human rights violations by business enterprises, and that companies merely have a responsibility to respect human rights, (see Surya Deva and David Bilchitz, eds., Human Rights Obligations of Business: Beyond the Corporate Responsibility to Respect?, CUP, 2013).

The proposed international instrument(s) should be able to provide victims access to justice in situations where the GPs might fail to deliver, that is, where states are willing and/or capable to exercise their “protect duty” against corporations or where corporations do not see any clear business case to conduct due diligence to discharge their “responsibility to respect” human rights. In fact, I will argue that the proposed international instrument will be a necessary logical extension of the GPs: while complementing the GPs, such an instrument will also fill gaps inherent in them.

Nature and scope of international instrument(s)

There is extensive discussion about the need for a legally binding international treaty. Binding regulatory initiatives strengthen the overall regulatory efficacy because even voluntary initiatives work better under the shadow of obligatory regimes (and vice versa). It is telling that all major corporate settlements related to human rights abuses or environmental pollution, including the recent one involving Shell, have been offshoots of litigation against transnational corporations (TNCs). So, it is desirable to have binding international instruments regulating corporate behaviour.

However, considering that the obligatory nature of international law is very different in practice from the status of obligatory domestic laws, one should not overemphasise the need for a legally binding treaty over other considerations. A soft but normatively sound international instrument might prove more useful in practice as compared to a hard but a narrow or normatively deficient treaty. Non-state actors and a “coalition of the willing states” could turn a soft international instrument into a hard one in practice.

In terms of the scope of a future international instrument, Ruggie rightly highlights the “highly problematic” nature of the footnote of the Ecuadorian resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council in June 2014. Although certain developing countries might perceive that an international treaty is only required to deal with TNCs, having such a narrow focus will be indefensible, unworkable and politically unviable. Any proposed international instrument should apply to all types of business enterprises, as any attempt to limit its scope by providing a definition of targeted corporations will inevitably result in lawyers advising enterprises how to bypass the given definitional contours.

It is paradoxical, however, that Ruggie does not carry forward his expansive views in relation to another aspect having a bearing on the scope of the proposed treaty. For pragmatic reasons, Ruggie’s advice is to begin with a carefully crafted precision tool aimed at capturing egregious human rights violations. While this may sound sensible, this proposed path is highly problematic. If “the corporate form of the abuser is irrelevant” for victims (John Ruggie, ‘Quo Vadis? Unsolicited Advice to Business and Human Rights Treaty Sponsors’), equally irrelevant is whether human rights violations are regarded as “gross” or not. Why should the proposed international treaty exclude access to remedies for victims of the Rana Plaza building collapse or the Bhopal gas disaster for that matter?

I will also contend that calls for negotiating a narrow treaty that deals only with egregious abuses is reflective, among others, of the Global North’s prioritisation of civil and political rights over social, economic and cultural rights. For people living in the Global South – who suffer disproportionately due to corporate-related human rights abuses – the latter set of rights are equally, if not more, important. Why should the displacement of indigenous people for mining, emission of (and/or exposure to) hazardous chemicals, compulsory pre-employment pregnancy testing of women and illegitimate land grabs by companies be taken less seriously than slavery or genocide?

If the scope of the proposed international instrument is confined to egregious human rights violations, it will mostly serve a symbolic purpose for its ambit will exclude most of the human rights abuses. Nor will it capture important human rights under several core international conventions such as Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which the GPs do not expect companies to respect as part of their “minimum” responsibility.

A potential alternative to move forward

Ruggie raises legitimate concerns about the feasibility of negotiating a single comprehensive international business and human rights treaty, which are useful. Why will it be impossible to have a treaty when the GPs could cover the same vast, diverse and complex set of issues within the rubric of business and human rights in a single document? The answer lies, among others, in the GPs’ attempt to avoid controversial issues in this area. If the proposed treaty adopted the same approach, it might not prove useful. Conversely, if the treaty drafters decided to confront such complex controversial issues or outline the exact human rights obligations of companies, they might not be able to reach a consensus.

To overcome this dilemma, I suggest an alternative: we should start with drafting a Declaration on the Human Rights Obligations of Business (Declaration) along the lines of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The proposed Declaration should (i) provide a sound normative basis for why companies have human rights obligations, (ii) proclaim that human rights applicable to companies are not limited only to those mentioned in the International Bill of Rights but rather extend to those elaborated in all UN human rights treaties (iii) outline the principles governing the extent of corporate obligations in relation to these rights, (iv) envisage a number of state-focal and non-state-centric mechanisms to implement and enforce human rights obligations against companies, and (v) suggest ways to remove substantive, conceptual, procedural and financial obstacles experienced by victims in holding companies accountable for human rights violations. Keeping in mind the fractured nature of international law, it will be crucial for the Declaration to assert the normative hierarchy of human rights and human rights instruments vis-à-vis other areas/instruments.

Once such a Declaration is in place, simultaneous and/or sequential efforts should be made to concretise the human rights obligations of companies in different areas and also clarify the obligations (including extraterritorial ones) of states in regulating corporate behaviour. This will entail negotiating and adopting a number of international instruments in due course. It may also be worthwhile to draft several Model Laws on specific areas to provide states with concrete guidance as to what legislative reforms and policy adjustments they should make to deal with the privatisation of human rights when acting at domestic, bilateral, regional and international levels. Such a process will of course take time, but that itself should not be a ground to delay initiating the above process.

The Declaration (and subsequent treaties) should employ a number of enforcement mechanisms – both state-based and non-state-based – at municipal and international levels to ensure the companies that do not comply with the agreed obligations could be held accountable in an efficient and speedy manner. In particular, the Declaration should contemplate the institutionalisation of the role of civil society organisation (CSOs) in enforcing and implementing human rights norms against companies. For example, a committee of CSOs in each state could be allowed to receive and deal with complaints of human rights abuses by business. Although such committees might not have formal enforcement and compliance powers, their determinations could be posted on a designated website to be used in dynamic ways by diverse stakeholders.

In additional to acknowledging the role of traditional civil and criminal sanctions in ensuring corporate compliance, the Declaration should underline the role of informal means and social (dis)incentives in enforcing human rights norms. These tools will be especially crucial for victims in those situations where states are unwilling or unable to act against companies for diverse reasons.

In short, the proposed international instrument(s) dealing with corporate human rights violations must not be overly state-centric. A deviation from the state-centric conception of international (human rights) law is required because states are not always consistent and reliable in enforcing human rights norms – this is one of the key reasons for the so-called governance gaps. If such instruments confer on states the exclusive power to enforce human rights norms against companies, they will do very little to fill the current governance gaps.

If the path proposed above does not find favour with enough states, then the option of evolving international norms “bottom-up” should be pursued, as business and human rights would require international law’s imaginative responses in the 21st century (Surya Deva, ‘Multinationals, Human Rights and International Law: Time to Move Beyond the “State-Centric” Conception?’ in Jernej Letnar Černič & Tara Van Ho, eds., Human Rights and Business: Direct Corporate Accountability for Human Rights (Wolf, 2015).