The extension of human rights obligations to corporations raises questions about whose rights and which rights corporations are responsible for. This paper gives a partial answer by asking what legal rights corporations would need to have to fulfill various sorts of human rights obligations. We should compare the chances of human rights fulfillment (and violations) that are likely to result from assigning human rights obligations to corporations with the chances of human rights fulfillment (and violations) that are likely to result from giving corporations the legal rights needed to undertake those human rights obligations.
Corporations should respect basic human rights of all people. Non-complicity in human rights violations requires that corporations have the right to political freedom of speech. To actively protect people from human rights violations, corporations need the right to hire armed security personnel; such obligations should be limited to protecting corporate property and narrowly defined stakeholders. Obligations to spend corporate resources on human rights fulfillment are confined to contributing to specific projects. Corporations have no obligation to ensure a society in which human rights are fulfilled. This principle helps us understand why corporate obligations are substantially different from those of governments.
Many business Ethicists and business persons agree on the need for corporations to respect human rights. John Ruggie, Special Representative to the Secretary General of the United Nations on business and human rights, argues that corporations have a "responsibility to respect" human rights (Ruggie, 2008).
There is less agreement, and certainly less clarity, on exactly what corporate respect for human rights involves. Problems arise because of both the nature of rights and the nature of corporations. Human rights codes (the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example) were designed primarily with states or governments as the rights observers (and especially as the rights ensurers); this makes extension of rights obligations to corporations problematic. For example, a central problem with extending human rights obligations to corporations is whether corporations have duties with respect to all or only some of the rights that governments are enjoined to respect.
Debates over the extension of human rights obligations from govemments to corporations centre on several key questions. The most basic question is if and why corporations should have such obligations at all, but even if it is granted that they do, there are further questions: which human rights obligations do corporations have, whose human rights should they consider, and are there limits to the corporate resources they should devote to their human rights obligations?
The purpose of this paper is to contribute to this debate by clarifying the nature of corporate human rights obligations, and by arguing that the human rights obligations of corporations should be limited by the limits on the legal rights that should be extended to corporations.
My approach will be to clarify the possible human rights obligations of corporations, and then to ask the question of what rights must be extended to corporations in order for corporations to fulfil each sort of obligation. If it can be shown that corporations should not have a particular right, it follows that corporations cannot be viewed as having any human rights obligations that require them to have that right.
For example, if corporations have an obligation to protect the security rights of their employees, then we must view corporations as having the right to hire armed security personnel insofar as this is necessary to protect employees. If corporations have an obligation to speak out against government violations of human rights, then corporations must have the right to freedom of speech, including freedom of political (not just commercial) speech.
Throughout this paper, it should be kept in mind that the obligations created by people's human rights may not completely account for all the ethical obligations a corporation has. A corporation may well have ethical obligations based on some other grounds: deontological, utilitarian, and so on. Furthermore, corporations may have supererogatory obligations on humanitarian grounds, such as an obligation to philanthropy, which by definition are beyond rights obligations. Also, it needs to be noted that obligations based on human rights may not correspond to legal obligations in any country that does not enshrine and observe relevant human rights in its laws. This includes an unfortunately large number of countries at the moment.
Indeed, no country has a perfect human rights record.
The next section of this paper will examine some of the reasons that have been given for thinking that corporations have human rights obligations. Section 3 considers and finds inadequate for our purposes several theories on the limits of corporate human rights obligations. Section 4 categorizes types of human rights and suggests that subsistence rights and basic rights to freedom, security and non-discrimination are the origins of most corporate human rights obligations. In section 5, I will propose a principle that limits corporate human rights obligations. The proposal is that we should compare the chances of human rights fulfillment (and violation) that are likely to result from assigning human rights obligations to corporations with the chances of human rights fulfillment (and violation) that are likely to result from giving corporations the rights needed to undertake those human rights obligations.