Author: Gabriel Armas-Cardona

[Gabriel Armas-Cardona received his J.D. from New York University and was a legal officer at Lawyers Collective in New Delhi, India where he managed the Global Health and Human Rights Database.] Human rights activists have long complained of legal lacunae in domestic and international law over the regulation of corporations. This is why last year’s United Nations Human Rights Council resolution to elaborate binding obligations on corporations was cheered by activists (and derided by business). The UN’s previous attempt to develop a general framework of responsibilities in the 2011 Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights did not impose binding obligations, likely one of the reasons it was generally praised by corporations. Corporate behavior is primarily regulated through two domestic legal systems: tort and a corporate regulatory regime. The first is the traditional remedy system for individuals while the latter is the State impositions on business to promote a social good. In well-regulated States, these two distinct systems have grown to more effectively protect that society. But many developing countries don’t have legal systems in place that effectively protect their society and almost no State regulates corporate action abroad for the protection of other societies. The value of binding legal obligations is that they can remove the lacunae by having universal and consistent obligations for all corporations within States and in the interstitial space between jurisdictions. These obligations would be distinct from and would not dilute State human rights obligations. Having multiple dutybearers, even qualitatively different ones, is not problematic. Corporate obligations would positively interplay with States’ duty to protect to further realize human rights. When a violation by a corporation occurs, it would be the State’s duty to provide a remedy system, stemming from a State’s duty to protect, and the corporation’s duty to cooperate with that system, stemming from the secondary duties mentioned in the duty to fulfill, or to directly provide reparations to the victim (in normal parlance: go to court or settle). If the corporation cannot provide reparations (e.g. due to bankruptcy), then the State would have to provide reparations directly. Either way, the victim is made whole. Underlying the challenge is that there currently is no principled framework for universally applicable corporate obligations. One can’t simply copy State obligations and apply them to corporations; their obligations must reflect that they are private actors. The Guiding Principles state that corporations “should avoid infringing on the human rights of others” (Principle 11), or as the Special Representative of the Secretary-General that wrote the Guiding Principles said, the responsibility of a corporation is “put simply, to do no harm.” The principle of “do no harm” has been used as a touchstone in corporate human rights obligations since at least 2002 and is a surprisingly suitable standard for developing a structure for general obligations. As dutybearers, the same tripartite typology of human rights can apply to corporations as States; i.e., a human right would impose duties on corporations to respect, protect and fulfill. The Shue/Eide typology recognizes that the realization of rights can require measures of varying degrees of activity by dutybearers. Corporations can violate rights as producers, industry players, or employers; thus, depending on the situation, corporations may be required to stop selling defective goods, protect victims from violations done by the corporation’s supply chain or provide reparations for a prior harm. The majority of obligations falls within the duty to respect, but the duties to protect and fulfill provide new and interesting duties that respond to the concerns of corporate violations. To understand what substantive obligations arise from “do no harm,” it helps to use the example of a particular right, such as the right to health. As economic entities, corporations are able to directly infringe on the realization of economic, social, and cultural (ESC) rights. The right to health is one of the most developed and broadest ESC rights, making it useful to use here. The content of corporate obligations vis-à-vis the right to health