Introduction : TNCs & Human Rights

As a result of globalization, transnational corporations have not only extended their economic activities, but also their influence on social, political, cultural and ecological development. The annual revenue of some corporations now exceeds the gross national product of a developing country, allowing them to exert considerable pressure on national governments. Transnational corporations influence living standards by relocating production-sites, while their lobbyists play an important role in international affairs and the generation of international and transnational law.

Against this backdrop, ECCHR organized an international conference in cooperation with "Bread for the World" and "Misereor" on "Transnational Corporations and Human Rights". The Conference took place on October 9 and 10, 2008 in Berlin. Some of the Speeches made by the participants are provided here as video clips.

Sakia Sassen, Role of the Nation States

Prof. Dr. Saskia Sassen points out the relationship between nation states and the considerable powers held by today's multinational corporations. Without the actions of these states, she says, the corporations would not have achieved such potency.

While the behaviour of nation states in international affairs has generally remained nation-focused, many states have in recent years displayed an internationalistic approach to global finance and multinational corporations. We should now ask whether this disposition can be redirected to other aims like the global commons, environmental protection and human rights. Sassen asserts that the capabilities of  a good working nation state should not be relinquished but rather denationalized, and stresses the positive possibilities of such a process. 

Elisabeth Strohscheidt, Acknowledgement to the Conference Panels

Elisabeth Strohscheidt stresses that hard-law mechanisms and litigation are emerging instruments which might strengthen soft- law mechanisms. It is not, she states a question of either/or,  and there should not be an artificial separation between the two types of instrument.

She asks how large state-owned companies and corporations from emerging economies can be controlled, and calls for more exchange between lawyers, NGOs and human rights activists, Furthermore, she stresses the importance of involving the local community when a case is filed.

Colin Gonsalves: "Litigating Human Rights"

Colin Gonsalves identifies Coca-Cola as a principle rights offender in many countries, among them Colombia, South Africa and India. Describing how the Coca-Cola Company controls and pollutes water resources in these states, he appeals for more common actions against the corporation

He further describes how globalization forces governments to relax patent regimes, thus giving companies the possibility to patent a broad variety of products. Companies even try to patent basic food or plants with medical properties.   

Peter Weiss: "Soft-law mechanisms, chances and disadvantages"

Norm creation is an important aspect of human rights work. According to Peter Weiss, soft-law mechanisms can influence corporate behavior. However, because the term "soft-law" is often linked with being "non-binding", it might be better to use the term "emerging law" instead, which illustrates more precisely the nature of such legislation. Furthermore, he points out that civil society can contribute to the creation of customary law through lobbying, protest and the repeated public expression of opinion. 

Yann Gueinnec (Sherpa) : "Chain supply and Labour Rights"

Due to outsourcing and subcontracting, it's increasingly difficult to link labor rights violations to multinational companies. The responsibility of companies is important, however, and could be strengthened through profit incentives. Transparency law, currently the topic of much discussion, could grant the consumer information about the human rights aspects of supply-chain production.

Sherpa, a French Human Rights organization, has recently filed a complaint in response to the uncompensated dismissal of 868 employees at a Congo-based subsidiary of a French company.  As  Gueinnec explains, the work of labor unions has been vital to the development of this case, which is currently pending in France.

Jacqueline Moudeina: "Effective Instruments of Litigation in Chad"

Jacqueline Moudeina speaks about the difficult issues involved in selecting a legal instrument to fight human rights violations committed by multinational corporations in Chad. She underlines the advantages of national-level litigation, stressing that alternative instruments run the risk of allowing corporations to elude their responsibilities. Even in cases where the companies involved have a good relationship with the government, criminal prosecution can be successful. The disadvantage of criminal proceedings in repressive countries like Chad is the insecurity for the initiators of these processes: Lawyers and NGOs.

Peter Weiss: "How to Enforce Law with Regard to TNCs"

Peter Weiss presents three proposals:

Firstly - how do we tackle global business with national law? Weiss recommends the development of global charters for multinational corporations. Secondly, he sees the role of the International Court of Justice as undervalued and points out the obligation of every State to exercise effective control to promote human rights. In this light, he proposes that in cases where human rights violations have been committed by a foreign corporation and traced back to poor legal control in the foreign state, the affected nation should consider going to the ICJ. Thirdly, he asks for the death penalty for corporations who repeatedly commit the most grave crimes.

Sif Thorgeirsson: "New Approaches on the Human Rights Movement"

Sif Thorgeirsson discusses means of litigating against corporations which have committed human rights violations in states that do not offer legal instruments such as the US- Alien Tort Claims Act. It is important we think creatively to find ways of applying existing laws to hold companies to account. In China, for example, Nokia is facing a law suit for refusing to employ people who are Hepatitis-B positive. Another important example is the Chevron Toxico case in Ecuador. A legal system that enables advocates to bring cases in their home country will lead to an increase in litigation.

Prof. Dr. Olivier De Schutter: "Agrobusiness and the Right to Food"

Prof. Dr. Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur for the right to food, points out at the beginning of his speech that an increase in the production of food will not necessarily lead to the eradication of hunger. Starvation is less about the amount of food available, and more about the ability of the poorest to purchase the food that is there. It is especially important to stress this point because many of the corporations whose actions threaten the right to food justify their behavior by claiming that they are helping to address the need for more food.  Prof. Dr. Olivier De Schutter argues that while we may need food, we do have enough: the problem is that food producers at the beginning of the production chain do not receive sufficient income to purchase sufficient amounts of food.

Prof. Dr. Olivier De Schutter: “State Responsibility and Extraterritorial State Obligations”

While in principle the state on whose territory a violation is committed is responsible for protecting human rights, the reality is that many states are unable or unwilling to fulfil this duty. As Prof. Dr. Olivier De Schutter explains, sometimes the state itself committed the violation, other times international corporations act as accomplices to states that want to attract foreign investment and do not dare to impose too many obligations on the corporations. The important question is whether the home state of a corporation is obliged to force its corporations to respect human rights in cases where the territorially-competent state is not complying with its obligations. Does the home state have an extraterritorial obligation to protect human rights, and to what extent?

William Bourdon: “Litigation against TNCs and Personal Threats Against Human Rights Lawyers”

William Bourdon speaks about his experiences in the battle against international money laundering. As a human rights lawyer who interferes in international systems, one becomes the target of serious threats. Sherpa activities, for example, are being kept under the surveillance of the French secret service.