Binding Corporations to Human Rights Norms Through Public Law Settlement
Benjamin C. Fishman
Recent settlements in the United States and France of human rights litigations against oil companies Unocal and Total have made it clear that litigation is a viable tool for holding companies to account for their involvement in human rights abuses abroad. This Note argues, however, that the Unocal and Total settlements inadequately reflect the public importance of the cases, which sought to force Unocalnamely, the prospective intervention in ongoing situations of injustice and the articulation of public norms. Instead, by channeling much of the settlement funds into community development projects unrelated to the human rights abuses, and by failing to demand any fundamental changes in the defendant companies’ conduct, the settlements replicate a pernicious element of contemporary “corporate social responsibility” efforts: the characterization of good corporate behavior as a matter of charity rather than as a matter of right.
This Note argues that future settlements of human rights cases against corporations can—perhaps more effectively than fully litigated cases—better reflect the promise of public law litigation by setting up legally binding systems to monitor corporate conduct. Such systems could effectively prevent the type of human rights-threatening behavior transnational corporations are most likely to commit. Furthermore, such monitoring systems would be norm-producing, insofar as they would continually elucidate how corporations threaten human rights, and would generate an evolving repertoire of ways to address such threats. In so doing, monitoring systems could serve as bases for NGOs’ international human rights campaigns and as models for replication outside of the litigation context, thus further disseminating norms of appropriate corporate conduct.