Recent Posts

Final Compendium of High-Level Review of UN Sanctions Proposes Reforms to System

by Kristen Boon

The Compendium of the 2014 UN High Level Review of Sanctions, including its 150 recommendations, is now available here on the UN Website.  The Document number is A/69/941 – S/2015/432.  The review, sponsored by Australia, Finland, Germany, Greece and Sweden, took place from May –  November 2014, and involved a series of meetings between Member States, the Secretariat as well as other UN bodies.

The starting point of the review was to look at the 16 regimes in place, and discuss how to improve the existing sanctions system from there.  The compendium has many useful recommendations and observations.  Here are a few:

  • It emphasizes the move towards using sanctions to address trafficking in wildlife products and natural resources;
  • It highlights the importance of using sanctions to address transnational threats and new technologies; (Recommendation 146)
  • It recommends using sanctions to better address existing and emerging threats on, for example, incitement to genocide, sexual violence in conflict, and gross violations of women’s rights; (Recommendation 132)
  • It advocates the establishment of a Trust Fund for sanctions implementation assistance, a proposal originating from Jordan. (Recommendation 126).  While not going so far as to reference Article 50 of the UN Charter (special economic problems), together with recommendations 123 – 125 on assessments for assistance, it charts a future path towards better coordination and provision of assistance.
  • The Compendium also proposes better coordination between the ICC and the UN, highlighting the absence of clear processes in the past, and the possibility of future synergies.  For example, the compendium makes the very sensible recommendation of automatically listing individuals (where a relevant sanctions regime applies) after an arrest warrant has been issues by the Pre-Trial Chamber.  (Recommendation 100).

The compendium is a useful and current document, that gives a current state-of-play of UN sanctions while adding onto the Interlaken, Bonn and Stockholm and Greek initiatives of prior years.  Nonetheless, it must be noted that an attempt to pass a Security Council resolution last November on some of these same issues failed.   See the Security Council report assessment here of a draft resolution that was debated but never brought to a vote.   Attempts to strengthen capacity building, assistance and implementation for UN sanctions remain controversial – whether because of ongoing hesitation about the robustness of the tool, or because of opposition to strengthening the Secretariat’s policy making capacities.

What impact this document will have remains to be seen, but as the race heats up for the next Secretary General, one hopes that the recommendations will form part of the campaign, and further that future Secretary Generals will play a greater role in sanctions implementation, by for example, including substantive reports on sanctions in their briefings to the Security Council.  (See recommendation 50).

Guest Post: Is the International Criminal Court in Need of Support to Clarify the Status of Heads of States’ Immunities?

by Alexandre Skander Galand

[Alexandre Skander Galand is a Ph.D. Candidate at the European University Institute (EUI), Law Department.]

In the aftermath of the last episode of the ‘Al-Bashir saga’, one might have wondered what the International Criminal Court (ICC) will do with the last report (filed on 17 June 2015) of the ICC registry concerning South Africa’s failure to arrest and surrender Sudan’s President. The answer is now clear: there will be proceedings to determine whether South Africa failed to cooperate with the ICC. Indeed, last Friday 4 September, Pre-Trial Chamber II issued an “Order requesting submissions from the Republic of South Africa for the purposes of proceedings under article 87(7) of the Rome Statute”.

As it is known, the Decision of Pretoria High Court Judge Hans Fabricius on 15 June directing the various executive authorities of South Africa to take all necessary steps to prevent President Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan from leaving South Africa was overlooked by the concerned authorities. On the next day, just after the High Court handed down its decision that Al-Bashir be arrested and detained, the counsel for the South African executive authorities informed the Court that Sudan’s President had already left the country.

The ‘Al-Bashir Saga’ raises the question of whether it is crystal clear that Al-Bashir is not immune from the ICC and its States parties’ exercise of jurisdiction. Is the immunity of Heads of States not parties to the Rome Statute completely irrelevant when a State enforces an ICC arrest warrant? Or, must the State be deemed to have waived its immunity? If so, is a Security Council (SC) referral sufficient to waive the immunity of a Head of State? Or, must the immunity to which the Head of State is entitled under international law be explicitly waived by the SC?

The ICC says: In claris non fit interpretatio

Three days before the Pretoria High Court ruling, the ICC Pre-Trial Chamber (PTC) held:

“it is unnecessary to further clarify that the Republic of South Africa is under the duty under the Rome Statute to immediately arrest Omar Al-Bashir and surrender him to the Court, as the existence of this duty is already clear and needs not be further reiterated. The Republic of South Africa is already aware of this statutory duty and a further reminder is unwarranted.” (§ 10)


President Rubio/Walker/Trump/Whomever Can Indeed Terminate the Iran Deal on “Day One”

by Julian Ku

Professors Bruce Ackerman and David Golove argue in this Atlantic essay that the next President cannot withdraw from the Iran agreement because it is a “congressionally authorized executive agreement.” They argue that Senator Marco Rubio’s pledge to terminate the Iran Deal on day one “would destroy the binding character of America’s commitments to the IMF, the World Bank, NAFTA, and the World Trade Organization….The President can no more walk away from them than he can from any other law or treaty.”

I am sorry to say that this article, which comes from two super-respected legal scholars, is deeply and badly mistaken.

This argument is based on the premise that the “legislation that Congress adopted last May, …explicitly grants the Administration authority to negotiate and implement binding legal commitments with Iran.” In their view, the Iran Deal is a simply a congressional-executive agreement exactly akin to U.S. trade agreements like NAFTA.

But this premise is wrong.  The U.S. government has repeatedly stated (see here)  that the “Joint Coordinated Plan of Action” between Iran and the P-6 powers is a “nonbinding” political commitment. And the JCPOA itself talks only of “voluntary measures.” (see Dan Joyner’s discussion of this here).   Even the United Nations Security Council Resolution that implements the JCPOA does not legally bind the U.S. to stick to the JCPOA (as John Bellinger argues here).

Nor does the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act explicitly (or implicitly) authorize the President to make an agreement with Iran that would go beyond the President’s existing constitutional powers to make sole-executive agreements or nonbinding political commitments. The Review Act simply sets up a disclosure and timetable regime for the President’s disclosure of his foreign affairs activities that he wouldn’t otherwise have to disclose to Congress.

It is nothing like the Trade Promotion Authority that the President has received to conclude trade agreements like NAFTA or the WTO. While the Review Act discusses agreements that were already made and sets out disclosure and timing requirements, Trade Promotion Authority laws (like the most recent one) say things like: “the President— (A) may enter into trade agreements with foreign countries before” certain dates and then cannot afterwards.”  This is explicit authority, and no similar language can be found in the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act.

In any event, Ackerman and Golove are also mistaken on a more mundane point. Even if the Iran Deal is a binding congressionally authorized international agreement, a future President could withdraw from such an agreement unilaterally.  This is true because: 1) the JCPOA itself has an “exit ramp” under Paragraph 36 which allows the U.S. to terminate its participation after 35 days if its concerns about Iran’s compliance are not satisfied; and 2) the President appears to have broad constitutional powers to unilaterally terminate treaties without Congress or the Senate’s approval.  Surely, the President could terminate a nonbinding voluntary “plan of action” without going back to a Congress that didn’t really authorize him to make an agreement in the first place.

Even though I am increasingly convinced that the Iran Nuclear Deal is a bad deal for the U.S. and Europe (not to mention Israel), I have publicly defended the legality of President Obama’s decision to conclude a nuclear “agreement” with Iran without going to Congress to get approval. But the decision to bypass Congress has got to have a price for the President.  And that price is that the Iran Deal does not bind his predecessor either as a matter of constitutional or international law.

The Difference Between the British and American Debates Over the Legality of Drone Strikes: The Brits Seem to Care About International Law

by Julian Ku

Earlier this week, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the UK had conducted a lethal drone strike against one of its own nationals (affiliated with ISIS)  in August and that the British government was confident of the strike’s legality under international law.

As an outside observer, I am fascinated at how important the drone strike’s legality under international law seems to be for UK policymakers and commentators.  The BBC’s useful analysis of “Who, What, Why: When is it legal to kill your own citizens?” is exclusively focused on the legality of the strike under international law.  So is this editorial from the UK newspaper The Independent.

To be sure, the US debate over drone strikes also dealt seriously with international law.  But the most powerful legal arguments against drone strikes were those made on the basis of the U.S. Constitution’s Due Process Clause and U.S. statutes criminalizing murder of U.S. nationals abroad. International legality has not played a big part in this litigation, nor even in its broader public debate. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky famously filibustered for a whole day against targeted killings but his legal complaint was wholly constitutional.

But as far as I can tell, there has been little discussion of whether the UK government’s killing of a UK national abroad violates the UK Human Rights Act (incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights) or UK statutory law more generally.  I may be missing something, but it does seem a telling difference in the nature of public and legal discourse in the two countries.


Announcement: 11th Annual ESIL Conference 10-12 September

by Jessica Dorsey

The 11th Annual Conference of the European Society of International Law will take place in Oslo, Norway, from 10 to 12 September 2015. It is hosted by the PluriCourts,  Centre for the Study of the Legitimate Roles of the Judiciary in the Global Order, University of Oslo. The topic this year is the judicialization of international law. It is still possible to register for the conference by visiting this website.

Selected sessions of the conference will be streamed, and you can see the live webcast here.

Weekly News Wrap: Tuesday, September 8, 2015

by Jessica Dorsey

Your weekly selection of international law and international relations headlines from around the world:


Middle East and Northern Africa





  • Opposition to a landmark free trade deal with China is driven by racism and xenophobia, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on Tuesday, as his political opponents dug in their heels over what they say are weaknesses in its labor provisions.


British Government Says “Oops, Our Bad” in Terrorism Case

by Kevin Jon Heller

Well, this is a tad embarrassing for the British government. A prosecution of a Swedish national for providing support to Syrian rebels fell apart when… it became clear the British government had been providing support to the same Syrian rebels:

His lawyers argued that British intelligence agencies were supporting the same Syrian opposition groups as he was, and were party to a secret operation providing weapons and non-lethal help to the groups, including the Free Syrian Army.

Bherlin Gildo, 37, who was arrested last October on his way from Copenhagen to Manila, was accused of attending a terrorist training camp and receiving weapons training between 31 August 2012 and 1 March 2013 as well as possessing information likely to be useful to a terrorist.

Riel Karmy-Jones, for the crown, told the court on Monday that after reviewing the evidence it was decided there was no longer a reasonable prospect of a prosecution. “Many matters were raised we did not know at the outset,” she told the recorder of London, Nicholas Hilliard QC, who lifted all reporting restrictions and entered not guilty verdicts.

In earlier court hearings, Gildo’s defence lawyers argued he was helping the same rebel groups the British government was aiding before the emergence of the extreme Islamist group, Isis. His trial would have been an “affront to justice”, his lawyers said.

Henry Blaxland QC, the defence counsel, said: “If it is the case that HM government was actively involved in supporting armed resistance to the Assad regime at a time when the defendant was present in Syria and himself participating in such resistance it would be unconscionable to allow the prosecution to continue.”

I think the only surprising thing about the case is that the British government dismissed the charges. A similar US prosecution would likely have continued, with the government somehow convincing the judge to prevent the defendant from introducing evidence of its hypocrisy.

Guest Post: A Complementarity Challenge Gone Awry– The ICC and the Libya Warrants

by Jennifer Trahan

[Jennifer Trahan is an Associate Clinical Professor, The Center for Global Affairs, NYU-SPS, and Chair, International Criminal Court Committee, American Branch of the International Law Association.]

On July 28, 2015, a domestic court in Libya announced death sentences against Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and Abdullah al Senussi, who served as intelligence chief. In total, 32 former Gaddafi-era officials were convicted, including 9 who were sentenced to death. Yet, observer accounts suggest the trials were deeply flawed, lacking key fair trial protections. The possibility that Libya will carry out the death sentences is clearly of huge concern to the defendants, but should also be of concern at the International Criminal Court.

On February 26, 2011, the UN Security Council referred the situation in Libya to the International Criminal Court. The Court originally issued 3 warrants for crimes committed during the 2011 uprising, against Muammar Gaddafi, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, and Abdullah al Senussi, charging them with murder and persecution as crimes against humanity. The case against Muammar Gaddafi was terminated after his death.

Initially at issue in both the Saif Gaddafi and al Senussi cases was whether they should be tried in Libya or at the ICC, as the ICC will only try cases where national courts are “unwilling” or “unable” to conduct the trials. The Court ruled that Saif needed to be tried at the ICC, whereas al Senussi could be tried in Libya, as he was the subject of domestic proceedings and the ICC deemed Libya “willing” and “able” to carry them out. The ICC Appeals Chamber affirmed both rulings.

Yet, despite the ruling that Saif should be tried in The Hague, he was never surrendered, and remains in Libya. His situation is complicated by the fact that he is not held by any governmental authorities, but the “Zintan” militia.

As to al Senussi, this Author thinks the Court erred in its decision. The problem with the criteria of “willing” and “able” (or that a national court is not “unwilling” or “unable” to try the accused, as it is phrased in article 17 of the Rome Statute), is that it generally ignores an equally problematic third possibility – that a national court is “all too willing” to try someone (i.e., the situation of “overzealous” national proceedings). This is a situation one can certainly anticipate any time there has been a regime change and the new government wants to “get” at officials of the past regime – in other words, potentially the situation here. The rush to justice resulting in the Saddam Hussein execution is another example.

Human Rights Watch reports that al Senussi was denied adequate time to prepare his case, and adequate assistance of counsel. Saif, who was not even present for his trial, was apparently denied both these protections, and, additionally, while trials in absentia are permitted in Libya, the procedural safeguards required for them were apparently not provided. While the death penalty is permissible under Libyan law (and its imposition alone does not necessarily mean the trials were unfair), more and more countries categorically oppose the death penalty. At minimum, where it is a possible punishment, it is especially important that fair trial guarantees are scrupulously observed.

Should this turn of events be of concern to the ICC? Indeed.

Saif was supposed to be tried at the ICC, and he could end up executed in Libya. As a result of the ICC’s rulings, a “green light” was given to al Senussi’s trial in Libya, which has also resulted in a death sentence. If the sentences are affirmed on appeal and carried out, the ICC will have played a role in allowing two executions based on trials suspected of serious due process flaws.

There is still a chance for an appeal in Libya. Libya’s Supreme Court should independently and fairly review the verdict, particularly with a view to due process. But in the mean time, more pressure should be put to bear to ensure that Saif is transferred to The Hague (where he should have been all along), and al Senussi’s counsel should move to reopen the admissibility challenge based on newly discovered information (the events in Libya), or the ICC Prosecutor’s Office should do so.

The Appeals Chamber did leave an opening in its July 24, 2014 ruling (.pdf), suggesting that it would not utterly ignore due process violations by a national court, suggesting some concerns of an “all too willing” or “vengeful” national court:

It is clear that regard has to be had to ‘principles of due process recognized by international law’ for all three limbs of article 17(2), and it is also noted that whether proceedings were or are ‘conducted independently or impartially’ is one of the considerations under article 17(2)(c). . . . As such, human rights standards may assist the Court in its assessment of whether the proceedings are or were conducted ‘independently or impartially’ within the meaning of article 17(2)(c).

To the extent the Appeals Chamber also suggested the national proceedings would have to be “completely lack[ing in] fairness” such that they fail to provide “any genuine form of justice,” before the ICC can be the proper venue, the Judges are setting the bar too high. (Alternatively, it is conceivable that, upon further inquiry, one might find even that bar met.)

It is true that the drafters of the Rome Statute specifically rejected making the lack of due process a ground for admissibility. Yet, the precedent they were dealing with at the time – the experiences of the ICTY and ICTR, where “unwilling” and “unable” trials respectively were the concern – simply do not reflect what has become the experience of the ICC. Moreover, it is quite possible –as the Appeals Chamber has done — to read a “due process” component into the language of article 17 of the Rome Statute.

Based on the events in Libya—flawed proceedings that suggest a lack of impartiality—the Court should now find the al Senussi case “admissible” at the ICC and order him transferred. If that happens, individual states and the UN Security Council should be prepared to help ensure the transfer actually happens.

These may not seem the most significant cases the ICC has on its docket (they probably aren’t), but it would be a bleak day if the ICC (and the UN Security Council) stand by and let these death sentences be carried out on cases that stemmed from the Security Council’s referral, and as to which the ICC was involved.

Events and Announcements: August 30, 2015

by Jessica Dorsey


  • The Goettingen Journal of International Law has recently released the second issue of its sixth volume. The thoroughly selected articles of issue 6.2 address a variety of current questions in international law. Among others, the new edition features an article by Heike Krieger, in which she reflects on developments of immunities. Further contributions are by Sergio Dellavalle, Tim Banning and Mélanie Vianney-Liaud. The journal’s latest issue can be accessed at
  • On Tuesday 11 July 1995, a date which will live in infamy, the town of Srebrenica was overrun by Bosnian Serb forces. In order to commemorate this tragedy, the Board of Editors of the Netherlands International Law Review (NILR) invited a select number of authors to contribute to a Special Issue on the Impact of the Fall of Srebrenica (1995-2015) on various areas of public international law. These areas are: the law relating to the United Nations (peace and security), the law relating to international crimes, the law relating to international responsibility and the law relating to international remedies. The Board of Editors of the NILR is proud to announce the publication its first Special Issue since 2010. So that we will never forget.
  • Volume 6, Number 2 of Trade Law and Development has been published. The contents of the journal can be found here.


  • The T.M.C. Asser Instituut, the Dutch Red Cross and the Amsterdam Center for International Law are hosting a HILAC (Hague Initiative on Law and Armed Conflict) Lecture by Sasha Radin, Editor-in-Chief of International Law Studies and Associate Director of Research at the U.S. Naval War College’s Stockton Center, on September 8, 2015 at the Humanity House in The Hague. Sasha will speak on “Competing Concepts of Security Detention in NIAC.” A growing opinion exists that because of IHL’s lack of explicit law governing the legal basis, grounds and procedures for security detention in NIACs, any such basis must be found outside of IHL (most likely under domestic law and human rights law); absent that legal basis, detention would be arbitrary and unlawful. What are the implications of such an interpretation and is this the best way forward? The event is free. If you’d like to attend, please register with the Humanity House
  • The T.M.C. Asser Instituut is hosting a SCL (Supranational Criminal Law) Lecture by James Stewart, Deputy Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, on September 9, 2015 at the T.M.C. Asser Instituut in The Hague. James will speak on ” International criminal law – a personal note on its practice and current challenges.” This event is free and does not require registration. For more information, click here.

Our previous events and announcements post can be found here. If you would like to post an announcement on Opinio Juris, please contact us with a one-paragraph description of your announcement along with hyperlinks to more information.

Emerging Voices: Incorporation of Plural Realisations of Justice within the ICC System

by Justin Yang

[Justin S. Yang, PhD Researcher at King’s College London; LL.M at Leiden University.]

The International Criminal Court (ICC) projects a legal framework that is unique from the prior expressions of international criminal justice. In the construction of its Statute, in particular through the system of complementarity, the Court embodies the potential to actualise a horizontal and communitarian system of justice; rather than mandating a singular perspective of law in a vertical hierarchy, the ICC framework is designed to accommodate the inherent plurality of its international membership.

Tracing the development of international criminal justice institutions in the 20th century has illustrated that this project has been in oscillation between peak periods of heightened inter-state cooperation and trough periods of resistance to encroachments on Westphalian sovereignty. The respective institutions that were established following World War I, World War II, and the Cold War have predominantly reflected the interests of only the particularly powerful states, albeit under international communitarian rhetoric.

Prior to the ICC, exercises in international criminal justice were exclusively facilitated first by the key multinational states of the post-war Allies, and later by the P5 of the UN Security Council. Rather than devising a new justice system that could be compatible with sovereign equality and the multiplicity of legitimate legal systems on the international plane, the post-war multinational bloc opted to adopt the vertical trial-based nature of Western domestic criminal systems. In other words, these judicial institutions, acting on behalf of the multinational leadership, presided at the apex of their respective scope of adjudication, in the same way a sovereign reigns supreme in its domestic system. Mirroring the capacities of the sovereign, these international judiciaries were unchallengeable, and arbitrarily made claims to various laws, as understood and accepted by them, onto diverse heterogeneous situations. In this penetrative hierarchy, sovereign boundaries and the indigenous legal systems of the subject state were explicitly disregarded and disapplied by the adjudicators. Therefore, diverse circumstances, local peculiarities, and contextual relevancies, all of which could materially affect the process of adjudication and determination of culpability, failed to be considered. The crimes were analysed solely through the perspectives of the multinational victors.

The ICC marks a departure from this tradition of vertical justice. The democratic legitimacy inherent in its treaty-based creation, and its central tenets of independence and impartiality has, in theory, separated criminal adjudication from overarching political agendas, including that of the UN Security Council. The symbiotic relationship between the Court and its member states, within the complementarity regime, has allowed for a horizontal, stateless, and impartial system of justice to exist over the global community. Being complementary to national systems means that the Court preliminarily defers to a state’s sovereign prerogatives to exercise criminal jurisdiction over international crimes. This prerogative is perceived as a duty of every state (Rome Statute, Preamble). Upon failing this duty at a standard deemed acceptable by the Court, the case may then be admitted into the ICC docket. State proceedings are therefore inherently underpinned by the implicit threat of the Court ‘seizing’ the case, if the framework of preventing impunity (Rome Statute, Article 17) is not satisfactorily upheld. (more…)

Guest Post: Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17–Possible Legal Avenues for Redress (Part 2)

by Aaron Matta and Anda Scarlat

[Dr Aaron Matta is a Senior Researcher at The Hague Institute for Global Justice, Rule of Law Program. Anda Scarlat is a Summer Fellow with the Rule of Law Program at the Institute.With many thanks to Dr Lyal Sunga, Jill Coster van Voorhout and Thomas Koerner for their helpful feedback on earlier drafts of this commentary.]

Following on from our previous commentary on potential state responsibility, this post will look at the role of individual criminal responsibility in addressing the downing of MH17. Proposals have been made for using either existing mechanisms or for setting up a new tribunal to address this incident specifically. Determining the best avenue ultimately depends on the outcome of the investigations into the incident and the political realities of the situation.

At the outset, it is important to note the most recent major development: the Russian veto, on 29 July 2015, of a proposed United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution which aimed to set up an international tribunal to prosecute the individuals responsible for downing MH17. Despite this apparent setback, which is explored further below, a wide variety of options remain open.

Domestic Prosecution

First, the alleged perpetrators could face domestic prosecution in a state which has jurisdiction over the crimes in question. The most familiar bases for jurisdiction under international law would be: territorial (i.e. Ukraine, in whose territory and/or airspace the alleged crimes took place; or Malaysia, as the state of registration of the aircraft, in accordance with Article 3(1) of the Tokyo Convention on Offences and Certain Other Acts Committed on Board Aircraft); nationality (depending on the nationality of the alleged perpetrators, which has not yet been established); and passive personality (depending on the nationality of the victims, so including states such as The Netherlands, Malaysia and Australia). In addition, if international crimes are alleged, any state could exercise universal jurisdiction over the alleged perpetrators, for example on grounds that the incident amounted to “war crimes”; this would depend on the various states having legislated to give their domestic courts jurisdiction to prosecute international crimes. In addition, it may be very difficult to secure the arrest and surrender of accused persons for prosecution at the national level, especially if they are high ranking officials.

It is possible that The Netherlands would exercise jurisdiction over these alleged crimes, based on either passive personality or universality, given the important role it has played in investigations thus far, as well as the fact that a large number of its nationals died during the incident. Although these circumstances are likely to result in support for such a prosecution at the domestic level in future, The Netherlands (alongside states such as Australia, Belgium, Malaysia and Ukraine) is currently pushing for other avenues for prosecution, such as an international tribunal.

One could also argue that Ukraine and Malaysia have more robust jurisdictional claims over the incident by virtue of the territoriality principle. However, this argument is typically based on the practical reality that these states would, in most cases, have better access to the witnesses and other evidence needed for prosecution. In the case of MH17, given the strong involvement of The Netherlands and other states in the investigation thus far, these investigating states may be in a better position, de facto, to carry out the prosecutions, regardless of the relative robustness of the de jure basis for jurisdiction.

International Criminal Court

Secondly, if international crimes falling within the ambit of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) are alleged, the perpetrators could also be tried before this Court. However, (more…)

Emerging Voices: “Do No Harm” and The Development of General Corporate Human Rights Obligations

by 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