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One of the Missing Pieces in the Accountability Puzzle


Arvind Ganesan is the Director of Business and Human Rights at Human Rights Watch.


Professor Stewart’s proposal is intriguing. Incorporating international crimes into a slowly evolving legal regime that might eventually hold companies accountable for complicity in abuses abroad could be a useful step. Even though his proposal is limited to “international crimes” that would only cover a narrow set of abuses relative to all of the human rights issues companies have, it still is worth exploring.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with his thesis, one thing is clear: his proposal is part of a larger trend towards stronger mechanisms that could institutionalize enforcement of the human rights responsibilities of companies.

In the late 1990s when Human Rights Watch first began work on Business and Human Rights, most companies did not accept that they had human rights responsibilities. The earliest cases under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) against companies had been filed against Texaco (now Chevron) in Ecuador and against Unocal (now Chevron) in Burma, but had not reached any resolution. A number of companies were criticized because of human rights issues related to their operations, but were still resistant to changing their practices.

Most companies argued that host governments needed to address the abuses. By the beginning of the 21st century, some companies (mainly those burned by public criticism) started to grudgingly move to adopt human rights standards. The first company codes of conduct started to appear along with the first multistakeholder initiatives (MSIs) such as the Fair Labor Association (FLA) and the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights.

After that, the ill-fated UN Norms were drafted. By 2006, human rights policies, MSI’s, shareholder activism, and public scrutiny of companies were all part of the global mix. A range of activities had evolved to try to hold companies accountable. Then, the UN approved the new mandate for the Special Representative on Business and Human Rights.

One area that has consistently lagged behind all of the others has been the enforceable legal framework and specifically, legal accountability for corporate complicity in abuses. In 2006, there was no regulation for businesses although some had been proposed. For example, US congressional representative Chris Smith had drafted the Global Online Freedom Act to regulate internet companies so that they would have to protect freedom of expression and privacy online. GOFA was a response to scandalous disclosures that major internet providers were self-censoring in China and that one of them had turned over private account information on activists to Chinese authorities who were later imprisoned for their efforts to promote human rights online. But the bill has not become law.

Nor had the courts held companies liable under the US ATS. Some companies had reached confidential settlements with plaintiffs, but no company had been found liable for human rights violations under the ATS, so the regulatory effect of such suits are not yet realized. And recent rulings by the US Supreme Court make that possibility even more remote.

Modest regulation has continued to evolve. In 2010, the regulatory environment slowly began to change, beginning with the passage of the US Dodd-Frank financial reforms law that had two human rights-friendly provisions: section 1502 that required publicly listed companies to disclose whether they sourced conflict minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo; and section 1504 that required public extractives companies to disclose their payments to foreign governments. These laws represented some of the first attempts to regulate companies on human rights grounds. Even though they were relatively modest—only requiring companies to disclose information—they have been hotly contested by the industry and section 1504 has yet to go into force.

The next year, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights were approved. And building on the precedent of Dodd-Frank, governments like Canada, the UK, and the members of the European Union have all drafted their own extractives disclosure legislation. Other rules are in effect or developing, for example, the US has human rights disclosure rules for investments above US$500,000 in Burma. New social reporting rules are proliferating in Europe and as far afield as India.

New disclosure rules are a promising development, but they are not a substitute for full accountability. In our view, the best, but still imperfect, legal model may be one that mirrors anti-corruption laws. Those laws, such as the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), have extraterritorial reach, require companies to put systems in place to identify and prevent bribery and hold companies accountable when bribes are paid. Human rights rules could do the same thing: apply extraterritorially, require companies to put policies and procedures in place to identify and prevent abuses, face civil and criminal liability if abuses occur, and to regularly report on their efforts to protect human rights in their operations.

Laws like a human rights FCPA will not easily pass and will undoubtedly face resistance from industry and the governments sympathetic to them. But structurally, they offer the best chance to cover the largest swath of companies. The growing number of disclosure laws may be the first step towards comprehensive rules. And there is some evidence that change is coming. The proposed UN treaty on transnational corporations and human rights, for example, is a sign of movement. While it is controversial (Human Rights Watch has expressed reservations about it), it does signify a desire to move beyond the status quo. But it would be premature and naïve to think that real accountability will come easily or is inevitable.

Any move towards accountability at the national or international level will be a challenge and will take time. In that context, Professor Stewart’s proposal may be a way to fill in the missing pieces of the accountability puzzle. Like many current developments, it is indirect inasmuch as it is not regulation, but the hope of de facto regulation through potential liability. It is not a panacea for abuses or a substitute for clear and explicit laws that define the human rights responsibilities of companies, but is a part of the mix of efforts that are slowly and surely trying to ensure accountability for business-related abuses.