The international business community is playing an increasingly important role on the world stage. Besides primary economic processes, this affects the influence it can exercise on the implementation of human rights. Whereas in the past, business was often requested not to interfere in relation to those rights, the opposite is now regularly the case, with companies being asked to exercise a positive influence, firstly by giving a good example in their own internal affairs, by allowing employees the freedom to join a union, avoiding discrimination etc., but sometimes also by intervening with the government seen to be violating human rights. The business community is thereby occasionally being asked to take on a role that traditionally was almost exclusively the preserve of states. This development is accompanied by the growing influence of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which are often well equipped to make the best possible use of new and influential media such as the Internet.
This leads us to the issue of the old distinction between the objects and subjects of international law, a distinction of which R. Higgins, a judge of the International Court of Justice remarked several years ago that it has become irrelevant (!), (see her Problems and Process, International Law and How We Use It, 1994, pp. 49-50). Be that as it may, the old emphasis on states as virtually the only legal subjects of international law with ditto liabilities is no longer justified. With the globalization of the economy and the resulting increase in the role of the international business community, added to the rise of civil society with its NGOs increasing in number and scope, relatively new actors are coming onto the scene, and together entirely rearranging the international legal system.
This brings us to the following research questions:
- To what extent do multinational businesses themselves have rights and duties under international law?
- What do already existing international codes of conduct (particularly those of the ILO and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the OECD) add to this?
-To what extent should companies be encouraged to fulfil their responsibilities more completely with specific company codes of conduct and, to the extent this question is answered in the affirmative, to what extent can these company-internal codes be seen as self-regulation, or should they also be available for external monitoring?
- What is the precise status of these codes of conduct and company codes, and what can we learn from a comparison with the development of professional and other codes of conduct at national level?