Corporate Responsibility and Transnational Law: a Short Stocktaking

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  1. Introduction

The role of corporations in society has been the subject of debate for as long as corporate entities have existed. One persistent theme has been the capacity of the corporation to be a bad actor bent on accumulation of wealth and power for its owners whether they be colonial despoilers operating through the European chartered trading companies of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, rapacious railway magnates in Britain or the corporate  “robber barons” of nineteenth century America.[1] Some have come to see the corporation as a pathological entity displaying psychopathic tendencies caused by its relentless pursuit of profit at all costs leading it to become asocial and devoid of empathy towards, or responsibility for, others.[2] Yet throughout its existence the value of the corporation as a vehicle for economic development has remained as has the question of how to direct its power, capacity and knowledge towards socially beneficial goals. It is in the attempt to strike a balance between economic action and responsible business conduct that the issue of corporate responsibility exists.

This contribution seeks to offer a brief stocktaking of corporate responsibility as an issue of transnational law. It does so, first, by outlining the meaning of corporate responsibility in its transnational context through the development of the concept of international corporate social responsibility (ICSR) as a response to the growth of corporate power following economic globalisation; secondly by examining why transnational legal analysis is important to the study of ICSR; and thirdly, by considering the limitations of transnational legal analysis focusing on how corporate power coupled with the retreat of “official’ legal regulation and the consequential stress on informal corporate self-regulation has led to weak ICSR norms including through the process of corporate responsibility for human rights as developed in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). The contribution ends with the conclusion that formal legal regulation has to strengthen ICSR norms as this is the most legitimate way to ensure effective observance of those norms by business actors.

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