Corporate responsibility in (public) international law


Written by Oliver Dörr, University of Osnabrück

Note: This blogpost is part of a series on „Corporate social responsibility and international law“ that presents the main findings of the contributions published in August Reinisch, Stephan Hobe, Eva-Maria Kieninger & Anne Peters (eds), Unternehmensverantwortung und Internationales Recht, C.F. Müller, 2020.

I. Companies – responsibility

1. As for commercial entities, international law is concerned, above all, with transnational or multinational companies. The term basically describes the conglomerate of commercial entities that are acting separately in at least two different countries and which are tied together by a regime of hierarchical coordination.

2. In times of „global governance“ the international legal concept of responsibility is undergoing a process of de-formalization and, thus, encompasses the violation of social behavioural expectations, which for companies may result from international standards that are not legally binding. The resulting responsibility is a legal one insofar as the law adopts those standards and attaches negative consequences to their violation.

II. Private persons and the law of international responsibility

3. Private companies may be held responsible under international law to the extent that they are either themselves bound by primary legal obligations (direct responsibility), or their business activities are regulated by States which, in doing so, are fulfilling their own international legal obligations (indirect responsibility). A State may just as well impose such regulation without actually being under an obligation to do so (e.g. the US Alien Tort Statute).

Private persons as subjects of international legal obligations

4. Private persons being themselves bound by international legal obligations pertain to the process of de-medatization, which established the legal personality of the individual under international law.

5. Sovereign States can, by concluding international treaties, create legal obligations for private persons, including private companies, directly under international law. The personal scope of this comprehensive law-creating power of States is delimitated by their personal jurisdiction under international law. Whether an individual treaty itself gives rise to legal obligations for private persons, is, just as the creation of individual rights, a matter of treaty interpretation.

6. Genuine legal obligations have evolved for private persons under international criminal law: Here, detailed primary obligations of private persons have developed that are linked to a specific regime of individual responsibility, in particular under the Statute of the International Criminal Court.

7. In contrast, the extension of international human rights obligations to apply directly between private persons is not yet part of the international lex lata. Individual texts pointing in that direction (such as art. 29 para. 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) are merely of a programmatic nature.

8. Genuine international legal obligations of companies can today be found in the rules regulating deep sea-bed activities (arts. 137, 153 para. 2 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea) and in various treaties establishing regimes of civil liability.

9. Obligations of private persons under international law, including those having direct effect within UN Member States, may also be created by the UN Security Council through resolutions under arts. 39, 41 of the UN Charter.

10. It is fairly uncertain whether the initiative, currently being undertaken within the UN Human Rights Council, to adopt a „legally binding instrument“ encompassing direct human rights liability of private companies, will ever have a chance of becoming binding law.

11. To the extent that there actually are primary obligations of private persons under international law, a general principle of law requires their violation to result in a duty to make reparation. Only in exceptional circumstances could the rules of State responsibility be transferred to private persons.

Obligations to establish the responsibility of private persons

12. An indirect responsibility under international law applies to undertakings via the international legal obligation of States to criminalize certain activities, e.g. in respect of waste disposal, bribery in foreign countries, organized crime and corruption.

Responsibility of private persons under autonomous national law

13. Provisions in national law that autonomously sanction private acts for international law violations bridge with their own binding effect the fact that the private person is not itself bound by the international legal norm.

14. The French Law No. 399-2017 on the plan de vigilance is far too general and vague to serve as an example for an (indirect) international legal reporting responsibility. The same applies to the CSR directive of the European Union of 2014.

III. Responsibility on the basis of non-binding rules of conduct

Behavioural governance without legally binding effects

15. The values contained in certain international law principles shape some social behavioural expectations that are summarized today in concepts of corporate social responsibility (CSR). As a matter of substance, those expectations relate to human rights, the environment, conditions of labour and fighting corruption.

Processes of rule-making

16. The discussion is mainly focused on certain international, cross-sector corporate codes of conduct, such as the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises (1976), die ILO Tripartite Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy (1977), the UN Global Compact (2000) and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (2011).

17. In particular, with regard to human rights and environment, those rules are extremely unspecific, which means that here, law merely serves as a backdrop in order to endow social behavioural expectations with moral authority.

Responsibility by reception

18. In order to adopt and implement those business-related standards, basically all instruments of law-making and application can be used, as long as they impose normative requirements on companies and their activities. Legal certainty standards under the rule of law, as well as the rules of international law on the jurisdiction of States, can limit the reception.

19. Non-binding standards could be implemented, for example, via the legal regimes of State aid (in particular with respect to export finance), public procurement, investment protection and the rules on civil liability. So far, however, the international standards on business conduct are rarely being implemented in a legally binding manner.

IV. Conclusion

20. If the distinction of law and non-law is to be maintained, responsibility of companies in international law is a theoretical possibility, but of little practical relevance: Only in very specific circumstances are private companies themselves subjected to international legal obligations; moreover, it is similarly rare that „soft“ international standards of conduct are being adopted by „hard“ law and thereby made into specific legal duties of companies.

21. Behavioural standards that determine the international debate on CSR assign a mere „backdrop function“ to the law, as they neither identify concretely the international legal norms referred to, nor differentiate them properly. In that context, companies are simply required to publicly declare their commitment to „the good cause“, which results in duties to take precautionary measures, to exercise transparency and to publish reports.

22. That is why environmental protection, human rights etc. in relation to the activities of private companies is still mainly the responsibility of States. Tools that exist in international law in this respect, such as the rules of attribution or protective duties, must be adapted and enhanced, in order to achieve adequate solutions for detrimental business conduct on the basis of State responsibility.


Full (German) version: Oliver Dörr, Unternehmensverantwortlichkeit im Völkerrecht, in: August Reinisch, Stephan Hobe, Eva-Maria Kieninger & Anne Peters (eds), Unternehmensverantwortung und Internationales Recht, C.F. Müller, 2020, pp. 133 et seq.