Essay: Considering a Treaty on Corporations and Human Rights: Mostly Failures But with a Glimmer of Success

17 Pages Posted: 30 Aug 2015 Last revised: 20 Sep 2015

See all articles by Larry Catá Backer

Larry Catá Backer

Pennsylvania State University, Penn State Law

Date Written: August 28, 2015


In June 2014, three years after it endorsed the U. N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the UN Human Rights Council moved to establish an open-ended intergovernmental working group to elaborate an international legally binding instrument to regulate, in international human rights law, the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises. These actions brought into the open long festering tensions among stakeholders involved in developing governance frameworks to manage the human rights behaviors of enterprises. The substantive positions of most stakeholders are now quite clear. They appear perhaps irreconcilable. This chapter will consider what the process of negotiating the contemplated treaty may reveal about the state of structuring governance frameworks for business and human rights either within the anticipated treaty framework or under the UNGPs. What analysis may reveal is that while the move toward the negotiation of a treaty may reveal substantial normative and conceptual failures, it also suggests some not inconsiderable successes. After setting the context of the current debate, Part II considers the normative and structural difficulties of the move toward a comprehensive business and human rights treaty. Part III then considers its benefits, both for the process of developing structures of governance for business and human rights, and its substance. Taken together what may become clear is that even were the move toward a treaty to end in failure, the movement toward more robust governance of the human rights effects of economic activity will emerge stronger.

Keywords: business and human rights, human rights treaty, multinational corporations, Guiding Principles, Civil Society

JEL Classification: F23, K33, M14, P41

Suggested Citation

Backer, Larry Catá, Essay: Considering a Treaty on Corporations and Human Rights: Mostly Failures But with a Glimmer of Success (August 28, 2015). Available at SSRN: or

Larry Catá Backer (Contact Author)

Pennsylvania State University, Penn State Law ( email )

Lewis Katz Building
University Park, PA 16802
United States

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