The traditional realist paradigm holds that the sovereign nation-state is the principal political and legal unit in the world community. Reflecting this tradition, most studies of economic sanctions are state-centered. They assume that states exercise control over their national corporations to deny economic resources to other states. Within this framework, nongovernmental human rights organizations become involved only as interest groups, lobbying governments to regulate or ban private economic activity with designated malefactor. These groups, however, are generally unable to persuade states to mandate disinvestment from or socially responsible behavior within repressive regimes. As a result, they redirect their energies away from the central authorities and toward corporations-directly pressuring them through boycotts and shareholder activism-and local governments-persuading them to condition municipal contracts on human rights criteria.
This essay examines the degree to which these nonstate actors can provide an alternative center of authority to that of the state in imposing human rights accountability on corporate conduct abroad. The first section explains the logic of nonstate sanctions and establishes criteria against which one can judge their challenge to realism. The second section assesses the successes and limitations of the anti-apartheid movement, which is viewed as the role model for such efforts. The third and final section contrasts the South African case with recent campaigns against corporate investment in Burma and Nigeria. These cases have been chosen because most grassroots organizations have pressed for corporate withdrawal rather than for more socially responsible business practices. Each represents an attempt by citizens' groups to impose sanctions against repressive regimes beyond those enacted by governments.