Realizing ‘Do No Harm’: Contesting the Human Rights Impacts of Corporate ‘Economic Irresponsibility’


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Awarding Institution
  • Surya DEVA (Supervisor)
Award date20 Aug 2019


Corporations are able to cause significant harm to the human rights of individuals through what I term ‘economic irresponsibility’. This term encompasses all morally agential business decisions and acts that harm human rights, yet that are not violations of deontological human rights obligations. Rather, acts of economic irresponsibility are profit-motivated choices taken without due regard for the consequentialist human rights impacts that incur. Such acts, which may range from tax avoidance to the decisions of agri-business firms, are largely uncaptured by contemporary business and human rights (BHR) discourse.

I frame the thesis around two main questions: 1) how economic irresponsibility operates and how it causes harm to rights, and 2) how BHR instruments and argumentation can evolve to capture the problem. Structural shifts related to neoliberal globalization have empowered corporations and relatively weakened states, granting corporations, in some instances, de facto power over human rights. This is particularly true of socio-economic rights. As this power grows, the potential adverse impacts of economic irresponsibility grow more severe. I disaggregate this power into four distinct forms: corporations can retrogress rights directly; can shape the material conditions underlying rights; can shape the overarching structures governing rights; and can incentivize other actors to cause harm to rights. These harms frequently operate at the macro-level, meaning individualized forms of accountability and remedy common in BHR may be inadequate. As they are not violations of deontological rules, many compliance-oriented tools fail to capture the harm therein.

To address the problem of economic irresponsibility, I develop a ‘negative egalitarian’ approach. It is negative in that it focuses on preventing and remedying harm, and egalitarian in that it addresses inequalities of power and capacity between business and society. The approach is based on relational egalitarianism, on the principle that actors constitutive of, and benefitting most from, the global economy, have responsibilities toward those harmed by it. It is consequentialist, captures suffering beyond legally defined victims, advocates structural shared responsibility between business, states, and inter-governmental organizations, and macro-level remedy for those harmed by economic irresponsibility.

To operationalise the approach I turn to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). I offer a reinterpretation of the UNGPs, informed by the above framework, which is true to the plain-meaning of key terms and the scholarship of the drafter, Professor John Ruggie, and significantly more ambitious than mainstream readings. I then present the implementation of the negative egalitarian approach to tackle economic irresponsibility under the ‘protect, respect, and remedy’ pillars of the UNGPs. This includes, inter alia, state duties at the intergovernmental, extraterritorial and domestic level, a range of business responsibilities for acts of economic irresponsibility they cause, contribute to, or are linked to, and remedial responsibilities towards those harmed based on both specific and more general capabilities.

    Research areas

  • Business and Human Rights, Socio-Economic Rights, Corporate Accountability