In a world where, as a result of recent globalization and privatization processes, business power has increased exponentially, allegations of corporate abuses of human rights are becoming more frequent.

Notwithstanding this, in a traditional reading of international law, if a state is unwilling or unable to protect the human rights of the individuals under its jurisdiction, victims of business abuses have no access to alternative judicial remedies. On the one hand, they cannot bring corporations before international bodies (human rights law creates obligations for States but not for companies, which are not considered full subjects of international law). On the other hand, they cannot resort to the courts of the States where these enterprises are incorporated (jurisdiction is deemed to have extra-territorial limitations).

But, the situation may change. The following are three events that will mark 2013 in the business and human rights agenda:

  1. The United States Supreme Court will decide whether the Alien Tort Claims Act (a statute granting jurisdiction to US federal courts over civil actions by foreigners for torts committed in violation of international law) can be used by victims of the worst corporate abuses even outside US territory. Access to effective remedy is one of the most pressing issues in business and human rights.
  2. The European Commission has called on all Member States to develop national action plans for implementing the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (a document adopted by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011 and now unanimously considered the authoritative focal point at the international level). The business and human rights movement is in desperate search of committed leaders among countries and international organizations.
  3. The banking sector is in the process of adopting new principles for project finance (called the Equator Principles) and developing a tool on how to apply the Guiding Principles to financial markets (a number of banks under the name of Thun Group have taken the initiative in this regard). The importance of the banking sector cannot be underestimated: Without (often unintended) support from financial institutions, many corporate abuses would not occur.

Author: Damiano de Felice is a PhD student in International Relations at the London School of Economics. He is also a researcher at the LSE Sustainable Finance Project and an external consultant to the Italian Ministry of Economic Development on the adoption of the Italian Action Plan to implement the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Image: Businessmen are seen walking through a business complex REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao