Corporate Accountability and Liability for International Human Rights Abuses: Recent Changes and Recurring Challenges

Duruigbo, Emeka | January 1, 2008

This article examines the efforts of the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Business and Human Rights (SRSG) to identify and clarify the legal status and obligations of corporations under international human rights law. Pursuant to his 2005 mandate, the SRSG has concluded that corporations bear obligations under international criminal law but are not yet direct addressees of duties under other aspects of human rights. Situating the SRSG’s conclusions in the context of the cacophonous exchanges among scholars on the subject, this work notes that the SRSG’s position is partly at variance with both of the two competing positions on the personality and subjectivity of multinational corporations under international law. The paper explores the possibility of moving beyond the largely sterile debates and the obstacles they pose to properly positioning multinational corporations to play roles in the international legal order commensurate with their size, resources and influence. While the desirability of bringing multinational corporations within the mainstream of international law is unimpeachable, there are many looming challenges that invite caution and present opportunity for deeper reflection before any fundamental changes are undertaken. It concludes by noting that it would still take some time before a definitive assessment can be made of the success or lack thereof of the strategy adopted by the SRSG at the moment – giving States another chance to regulate the activities of corporations within and outside their domain, failing which corporate abuses may advance to intolerable levels that could make international regulation inevitable.