Corporations and Human Rights: A Theory of Legal Responsibility

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The last decade has witnessed a striking new phenomenon in strategies to protect human rights: a shift by global actors concerned about human rights from nearly exclusive attention on the abuses committed by governments to close scrutiny of the activities of business enterprises, in particular multinational corporations. Claims that various kinds of corporate activity have a detrimental impact on human welfare are at least as old as Marxism, and have always been a mantra of the political left worldwide. But today’s assertions are different both in their origin and in their content. They emanate not from ideologues with a purportedly redistributive agenda, but from international organizations composed of states both rich and poor; and from respected nongovernmental organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, whose very credibility turns on avoidance of political affiliation. Equally importantly, these groups do not seek to delegitimize capitalism or corporate economic power itself, but have criticized certain corporate behavior for impinging on clearly accepted norms of human rights law based on widely ratified treaties and customary international law.