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July 11, 2014
UN Contemplates Rules Governing Transnational Corporations and Human Rights
    by Robert Kropp

A resolution adopted by the United Nations' Human Rights Council, seeking to establish an international human rights law governing transnational corporations, is opposed by the United States and most European Union nations.


In 2011, when the United Nations' Human Rights Council endorsed the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights developed by Professor John Ruggie, sustainable investors and other advocates corporate responsibility welcomed the development.

"This global framework is a significant breakthrough and an indispensible resource for investors in assessing the human rights performance of companies and supporting greater accountability and transparency, not only in their own operations but in their supply chains," Rev. David Schilling, the director of human rights for the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), stated at the time.

Ruggie asserted that corporations have a responsibility “to respect human rights, which means to act with due diligence to avoid infringing on the rights of others and to address adverse impacts that occur.” The Guiding Principles did not include a legal mandate, but sought to establish “a common global platform for action, on which cumulative progress can be built, step-by-step, without foreclosing any other promising longer-term developments.”

Noting the absence in the Guiding Principles of a legal mandate, a group of civil society organizations stated, “In some areas the draft of the Guiding Principles takes a more regressive approach towards the human rights obligations of States and the responsibilities of non-state actors than authoritative interpretations of international human rights law and current practices.”

Last month, 20 country members of the UN Human Rights Council voted in favor of a resolution calling for legally binding human rights laws governing transnational corporations. The United States and European Union member countries voted against the resolution. “The vote split between northern and southern countries shows who is willing to defend the interests of transnational capital and who defends the rights of the victims of human rights violations,” Brid Brennan of the Transnational Institute stated.

“How can we convince international corporations to rise up willingly to this responsibility if no national legal obligation binds them to do so?” a Vatican observer told the Human Rights Council. “A binding instrument would raise moral standards and change the way international corporations understand their role and activities.”

On the other hand, Ruggie wrote in advance of the Council's vote, the “complex clusters of different bodies of national and international law...embody such extensive problem diversity, institutional variations, and conflicting interests across and within states that any attempt to aggregate them into a general business and human rights treaty would have to be pitched at such a high level of abstraction that it is hard to imagine it providing a basis for meaningful legal action.”

The resolution voted on by the Human Rights Council was proposed by Ecuador, and it has been suggested that its frustration with Chevron's efforts to avoid responsibility for environmental destruction may have prompted the nation to do so. A second resolution, proposed by Norway, calls for stronger implementation of the Guiding Principles, as well as consideration of domestic laws to mandate corporate responsibility.

 

 
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