For decades, multinational businesses have self-regulated their operations with respect to human rights, largely unfettered by international law. In recent years, however, human rights groups have advocated that the United Nations (“UN”) create clear legal obligations for multinationals respecting their human rights-related conduct. At least partly due to the substantial burden such obligations could place on international businesses, these efforts by human rights proponents have proven largely fruitless--until now.On August 13, 2003, the UN Sub-commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights adopted the Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights (“Norms”). In March and April of this year, the fifty-three-member UN Human Rights Commission will vote regarding whether to adopt the Norms into international law. At first glance, the Norms seem benign. The document is not directly binding against corporations and has been described by some of its drafters as a mere restatement of existing international human rights laws. A deeper look at the Norms, and the context in which they were drafted, however, reveals that they may be the first major stepping stone toward the adoption of an international, enforceable set of legal obligations binding on transnational corporations (“TNCs”).This Development explores possible long-term effects of the Norms on international businesses by briefly (1) describing historical events leading up to the Norms, (2) summarizing the Norms' controversial content and commentaries, (3) noting what organizations both for and against the Norms are saying about the document, and (4) analyzing the Norms from legal, economic, and political perspectives.
Troy Rule, Using "Norms" to Change International Law: Un Human Rights Laws Sneaking in Through the Back Door?, 5 Chi. J. Int'l L. 325 (2004)