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 5: The case for leverage-based corporate human rights responsibility

Stepan Wood

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


In the field of business and human rights, should a company’s ‘leverage’ over other actors with whom it has a relationship–that is, its ability to influence their decisions or activities for better or worse–give rise to responsibility, rendering it answerable for its exercise or failure to exercise such leverage? I argue that the answer is a qualified yes: leverage is one factor giving rise to responsibility even where the company is not itself contributing adverse human rights impacts. The case for leverage-based responsibility has not been articulated clearly in the scholarly literature. Instead this issue tends to be subsumed in debates about ‘sphere of influence’ (SOI) and complicity, with which it overlaps only partially. One of the few commentators to address the issue head-on is the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on Business and Human Rights, Professor John Ruggie (SRSG), who explicitly rejected leverage as a basis for the business responsibility to respect human rights (United Nations, 2008a, 2008b, p. 18). In this chapter I attempt to supply the missing normative argument in favor of leverage-based responsibility and in the process answer the SRSG’s critique. It is necessary first to distinguish three issues that are often obscured in debates about leverage and SOI: first, the relationship between companies’ impacts on human rights and their leverage over other actors; second, the relationship between negative and positive forms of responsibility; and third, the relationship between companies’ human rights obligations and their optional efforts to support human rights.

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