Business and Human Rights

Business and Human Rights

Edited by Wesley Cragg

Topics discussed include the debates leading to the creation of the ISO 26000 standard and the United Nations human rights framework for business entities, as well as the nature and limits of the human rights responsibilities of business, the roles and responsibilities of international trade bodies like the World Trade Organization in protecting human rights, and the implications of the current debate for international trade agreements and trade with China. The contributors also explore the effectiveness of voluntary human rights standards in the textile and clothing trade, mining, advertising and the pharmaceutical industries.

Chapter 4: Silence as complicity: elements of a corporate duty to speak out against the violation of human rights

Florian Wettstein

Subjects: business and management, business leadership, corporate governance, economics and finance, corporate governance, law - academic, human rights, politics and public policy, human rights


‘The vast majority of corporate rights violations,’ as Stephen Kobrin (2009,p. 351) observes, ‘involve complicity, aiding and abetting violations by another actor, most often the host government.’ Kobrin’s claim certainly seems plausible. In an increasingly interconnected world our actions affect the lives of others in ever more profound ways. Thus, increasingly we may contribute to harm without being aware of it, or at least without intending to do so. It is in the very nature of complicity that it falls ‘outside the paradigm of individual, intentional wrongdoing’ (Kutz, 2000, p. 1). The problem deepens if we are not merely looking at the actions of individuals, but at those of organizations that operate globally and on a large scale, such as multinational corporations. Corporations may become complicit in human rights violations although they are not doing anything wrong in a conventional sense or engaging in any unlawful conduct (Brenkert, 2009, p. 459; Ratner, 2001, p. 501); they may simply be going about their business. This contributes to the pervasiveness of corporate complicity and renders it notoriously hard to grasp and, not least, to condemn. The very nature of wrongdoing is changing in the process of today’s globalization. The changing nature of wrongdoing in the global age must be followed by our rethinking of the parameters of moral responsibility. The fact that corporations often contribute to wrongdoings in the course of their ‘regular’ business conduct rather than by engaging in some specific, overt and deliberate harmful activity, poses new challenges to our moral intuition and our natural sense of justice. This is why cases of corporate complicity are in a sense symptomatic for our time; they require us to rethink some of the certainties of the Westphalian age and to come up with new normative visions and concepts to deal with the new problems with which we are faced in a transnational world.

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