The Guiding Principles of Business and Human Rights at a Crossroads: The State, the Enterprise, and the Spectre of a Treaty to Bind Them All

62 Pages Posted: 7 Jul 2014 Last revised: 20 Feb 2015

See all articles by Larry Catá Backer

Larry Catá Backer

The Pennsylvania State University (University Park) – Penn State Law

Date Written: July 5, 2014


From its from its inception, the U.N. Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights (GPs) have occupied a contentious and dynamic space — at once setting the framework for operationalization of regimes of business and human rights by states and enterprises, and simultaneously posing as either as a gateway or obstacle to the production of international law and national legal regulation of the activities of business enterprises. This article considers the issues emerging from the front lines of these battlegrounds: (1) the conceptualization of the state duty to protect human rights through the framing of national action plans, (2) the operationalization of the corporate responsibility to respect human rights through the framing of societally constituted reporting and assessment programs, and (3) the re-invention of the GP project as an expression of two dimensional internationalized state power and its challenge to the GP’s three dimensional project. Section II examines the way states might approach their obligations to protect human rights as elaborated most recently in the GPs. Using the framework of National Action Plans recently encouraged by the UN Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, the section suggests that these plans, and the approach undertaken by many states to implement the GPs may be misdirected. Section III turns to a consideration of the equally thorny issue of enterprise approaches to their obligations to respect human rights under the GPs. Two are examined more closely: (1) the quite promising framework, the Human Rights Reporting and Assurance Frameworks Initiative (RAFI) Project, and (2) the recent efforts of the World Federation of Exchanges’ (WFE) new sustainability working group to consider an Investor Listing Standards Proposal. Both are promising yet might be modified to better operationalize the corporate responsibility to respect human rights. Section IV turns to the effect of a move to supplement or supplant the GPs with a treaty framework. Yet, if the NAP framework and the RAFI/WFE processes can be most usefully understood as mapping projects preliminary to the hard substantive work of constructing rule of law norms in the legal and societal spheres, then the current treaty making effort represents both a culmination of the GP process and an effort to return to the state of things before the GP process started. That contradiction requires resolution. The article proposes a way in which the move toward treaty making may be integrated with the GPs state duty to protect prong and the discipline of NAPs and may help to frame interactions with the corporate responsibility. The current efforts to develop a treaty for business and human rights, then, might be most usefully understood and applied in this light — to use the treaty machinery to construct a well-integrated, long term, and ultimately comprehensive rule of law system for business and human rights, binding on all states, which can serve as a means of connection with the development of transnational business behavior norms that fall within the social (non-state) sphere. Together these three efforts suggest the current context of the project of business and human rights, a context in which the role of state, enterprise and international community remains fluid, contingent and undefined. The choices made by each of these critical players will determine the shape of business and human rights governance systems for some time to come. A later version will be published with the Fordham International Law Journal Vol. 38.

Keywords: business human rights, multinational corporations, Guiding Principles, responsibility to respect, societal constitutions

JEL Classification: K33, M14, N1, O19

Suggested Citation

Backer, Larry Catá, The Guiding Principles of Business and Human Rights at a Crossroads: The State, the Enterprise, and the Spectre of a Treaty to Bind Them All (July 5, 2014). Available at SSRN: or

Larry Catá Backer (Contact Author)

The Pennsylvania State University (University Park) – Penn State Law ( email )

Lewis Katz Building
University Park, PA 16802
United States

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