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On the Division of Moral Labour for Human Rights Between States and Corporations: A Reply to Hsieh

  • Denis G. ARNOLD


In a series of previous articles I have defended the claim that there are robust, theoretical justifications for concluding that corporations have human rights obligations and that those obligations are distinct from the larger set of human rights obligations that are properly attributed to states. Hsieh claims that corporations do not have human rights obligations. In this reply it is argued that even if one takes what Hsieh refers to as an ‘institutional approach’ to understanding the human rights obligations of states, corporations are nonetheless properly understood to have human rights obligations regarding those with whom they interact, such as workers, customers and community members.



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Jule and Marguerite Surtman Distinguished Professor of Business Ethics and Professor of Management, Belk College of Business, University of North Carolina at Charlotte.



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1 Human Rights Council, ‘Corporations and human rights: a survey of the scope and patterns of alleged corporate-related human rights abuse’, A/HRC/8/5/Add.2 (23 May 2008) 2.

2 Ibid, 4.

3 Arnold, Denis G, ‘Corporations and Human Rights Obligations’ (2016) 1:2 Business and Human Rights Journal 255275 .

4 Hart, H L A, ‘Are There Any Natural Rights?’, The Philosophical Review (1955) 64:2, 175191 ; Feinberg, Joel, ‘Duties, Rights, and Claims’ (1966) 3:2 American Philosophical Quarterly 137144 ; Cranston, Maurice William, What are Human Rights? (New York, NY: Taplinger Pub. Co., 1973); Shue, Henry, Basic Rights: Subsistence, Affluence and U.S. Foreign Policy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996 [1980]); and Lomasky, Loren E, Persons, Rights and the Moral Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).

5 Donaldson, Thomas, The Ethics of International Business (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).

6 Hsieh, Nien-hê, ‘Should Business have Human Rights Obligations?’ (2015) 14:2 Journal of Human Rights 218236 , 219.

7 Donaldson, note 5; Cragg, Wesley, ‘Human Rights, Globalisation and the Modern Stakeholder Corporation’ in Tom Campbell and Seumas Miller (eds.), Human Rights and the Moral Responsibilities of Corporate and Public Sector Organisations (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004); Cragg, Wesley, ‘Business and Human Rights: A Principle and Value Based Analysis’ in George Brenkert and Tom Beauchamp (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Business Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); Santoro, Michael A, Profits and Principles: Global Capitalism and Human Rights in China (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000); and Wettstein, Florian, Multinational Corporations and Global Justice (Stanford, CA: Stanford Business Books, 2009).

8 Hsieh, Nien-hê, ‘Business Responsibilities for Human Rights’ (2017) 2:2 Business and Human Rights Journal 297–309.

9 Donaldson, note 5.

10 Muchlinski, Peter T, ‘Human Rights and Multinationals: Is There a Problem?’ (2001) 77:1 International Affairs 3147 .

11 Arnold, Denis G, ‘Transnational Corporations and the Duty to Respect Basic Human Rights’ (2010) 20:3 Business Ethics Quarterly 371399 .

12 Weissbrodt, David and Kruger, Maria, ‘Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights’ (2003) 97 The American Journal of International Law 901922 .

13 Hsieh, note 8, 304.

14 I have made this point previously. See Arnold, note 11; Arnold, Denis G, ‘Sweatshops and Respect for Persons’ (2003) 13:2 Business Ethics Quarterly 221242 ; and Arnold, Denis G and Valentin, Andrew, ‘CSR at the Base of the Pyramid: Exploitation, Empowerment, and Poverty Alleviation’ (2013) 66:10 Journal of Business Research 19041914 .

15 United Nations General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (10 December 1948).

16 Ibid.

17 Goodland, Robert, ‘The Concept of Environmental Sustainability’ (1995) 26, Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 124 .

18 Human Rights Council, Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United Nations ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ Framework A/HRC/17/31 (21 March 2011) 13. The United Nations ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ Framework, summarized by the Guiding Principles, was developed by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises and endorsed by the Human Rights Council in its resolution 17/4 of 16 June 2011.

19 Arnold, note 11; Cragg, Wesley, ‘Ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the corporate responsibility to respect human rights: a critical look at the justificatory foundations of the UN framework’ (2012) 22:1 Business Ethics Quarterly 936 .

20 Hsieh, note 8, 308.

21 Arnold, note 11, 377.

22 Human Rights Council, ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy: A Framework for Business and Human Rights’ (7 April 2008), A/HRC/8/5 17.

23 Ibid, 16.

24 Besson, Samantha, ‘The Bearers of Human Rights Duties and Responsibilities for Human Rights: A Quiet (R)Evolution’ (2015) 32:1 Social Philosophy and Policy 254 .

25 Arnold, note 11; Cragg, note 19.

* Jule and Marguerite Surtman Distinguished Professor of Business Ethics and Professor of Management, Belk College of Business, University of North Carolina at Charlotte.



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