Unpacking Accountability in Business and Human Rights: The Multinational Enterprise, the State, and the International Community

24 Pages Posted: 3 May 2018

See all articles by Larry Catá Backer

Larry Catá Backer

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

Date Written: April 15, 2018


The emerging hard and soft law frameworks for regulating the human rights, labor and environmental responsibilities of economic enterprises (whether public or private) are operationalized, to some extent, through mechanisms of accountability. Accountability, then, occupies a central place within the complex of regulatory trends that are shaping the organization of economic (and to some extent social, political and cultural) life within a globalized order. The purpose of this essay is to unpack the concept of accountability as it is deployed in governance, and then to repack it in a way that makes the concept more useful. The thesis of the essay is this: accountability must be understood a shorthand for a set of multiple reciprocal relations, manifested in actions responding to expectations that are grounded in normative standards actualized in the context within which the actors are connected, and directed toward general (communal) and specific (individual) ends. A working system of accountability centered on corporate violations of human rights and sustainability, requires mutual and simultaneous accounting by all stakeholders to bring (1) each other to account, (2) oneself to account, and (3) to be brought to account. Part II examines the strands of premises that constitute the complex of concepts for which one uses the shorthand term “accountability.” It examines a core set of orienting principles central to the concept of accountability as a governance norm and as the instrument of that norm. The first touches on the behavior core of accountability as (a) the act of answering to, explaining of in relation to an expectation, (b) to a specific and functionally segmented objective, (c) manifested as conduct, norms, methods, consequences, (d) directed to oneself to others, and (e) to the specific ends of making right, disciplining behavior to ensuring order. These rational and functionally constrained actions then suggest the ways that rendering accounts can be manifested to the intended beneficiaries of the accounting. Part III of the essay, “Rendering Account,” then re-bundles accountability. Section A looks to its objectives (why account). Objectives include norm generation, good governance, institutional legitimacy, and remedial mechanisms. Section B considers the systemic elements of accountability systems. Its methods of accountability (institutional and formal or informal) and its governance sources (law or norms)—shape the expression of accountability and define its context. And Section C then considers the subjects of accountability systems (who accounts; who is accountable): states, enterprises, international organizations, and civil society/NGOs.

Keywords: accountability, Bussiness and human rights, Guiding Pirenciples, OECD, Corpoate Sociañl Responsibility, civil society

JEL Classification: K33, K42, M14, M41

Suggested Citation

Backer, Larry Catá, Unpacking Accountability in Business and Human Rights: The Multinational Enterprise, the State, and the International Community (April 15, 2018). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3163242 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3163242

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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