Business, Human Rights and International Law

Published on 24th May 2023

When historians look back at the twentieth century, they might reach the conclusion that the 1990s were a golden age for corporations. Multinational companies – especially those based in the western world, but also increasingly those based in Asia – grew at incredible rates, reaped massive profits, and expanded their presence and power exponentially. These corporations also constructed massive transnational networks of supply-chains, subsidiaries, and customers that transcended national boundaries. As a result, these global corporations gradually became wealthier, more powerful, and more influential than even some sovereign states.

In this process, that was driven by a global wave of deregulation and the promotion of neoliberal policies, millions of people and many countries benefited. States, communities, and other stakeholders that were able to take advantage of and harness this global system of wealth-creation succeeded in lifting billions of people from poverty and expanding opportunities for a better life for themselves.

However, many others were not as fortunate. Peoples and communities around the world –especially here in Africa – were adversely affected. Millions of people ended up working in terrible and inhumane conditions, entire communities were devastated by the effects of drilling and mining activities that destroyed the natural environment, agricultural laborers were forced to work for long hours without adequate compensation in massive plantations, and in many cases, security agents hired by companies to violently quell any opposition or resistance by the victims of these exploitative and inhumane practices.

This all led to a global movement to develop and codify norms and rules to protect individuals against the abusive practices of corporations. This was necessary because, only twenty or thirty years ago, it was unclear whether corporations are required to respect the human rights of individuals in the countries in which they are operating. Indeed, traditionally, it was assumed that while individual human beings were the beneficiaries of human rights law, it was states that were bound to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights, which meant that corporations fell in a normative gray area. Despite the fact that they wielded immense power and influence, corporations seemed free of any obligation to respect human rights and there was a serious gap in the mechanisms to hold them accountable.

This is the problem that the area of business and human rights was designed to address.

Over the past two decades, a global movement has emerged to develop a normative architecture that affirms that corporations are required to respect human rights, to hold corporations accountable for human rights abuses, and to provide paths for remedies for victims. Indeed, as I am sure you will hear from many of our distinguished speakers, it is now widely accepted and recognized that corporations have an obligation to respect human rights and that they must take action and exercise due diligence to prevent the perpetration of abuses against individuals.

Nonetheless, significant challenges remain in this area, especially in Africa.

It remains the fact that many of our countries and millions of our peoples in Africa have been the victims of the harmful effects of the activities of international corporations. Whether those companies are active in the extractive industries, in manufacturing, in resource production and processing, or in consumer goods, there an innumerable cases and stories of devastating impacts on peoples and communities. These include environmental damage and pollution, loss of biodiversity, forced displacement and land grabs, human trafficking, gender-based discrimination and exclusions, and illicit trade in protected and endangers species.

These challenges are further exacerbated by the fact that there is often a serious imbalance in bargaining power between global multinational corporations and some African states, which makes them especially vulnerable to pressure by these international companies. Moreover, there are challenges relating to a lack of domestic capacities, including adequate legislative frameworks and law enforcement mechanisms, to provide protection to individuals. Again, these are some of the themes, issues, and questions that our speakers will be addressing and exploring.

In particular, it is our hope that our conversations will contribute to devising solutions that take into consideration the unique context of Africa, especially our socio-political realities, our economic vulnerabilities, and our institutional capacities. Moreover, we hope to learn how regional mechanisms can have a greater contribution to developing legal and normative frameworks that are applicable in Africa and that fill the accountability gap to protect our peoples and promote the welfare of our communities.

By Dr. Mohamed Helal

Associate Professor of Law Moritz College of Law

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