We saw in Chapter 7 that the international law of human rights was directed mainly to public authorities like states and their governments, but that private non-profit actors like human rights advocacy groups helped shape the rights discourse and action. In this chapter I will show that for-profit private actors like transnational corporations have a tremendous effect on persons in the modern world, for good or ill. For the first fifty years after the adoption of the United Nations Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights, these business enterprises mostly fell outside the mainstream debate about the promotion and protection of internationally recognized human rights. This was so despite the fact that the leaders of the German firm I. G. Farben and other business leaders had faced legal justice at the Nuremberg Trials (second round, US jurisdiction) for their role in criminal behavior.
This general situation was changing in the early twenty-first century. Attention to transnational corporations and human rights constitutes an important dimension in the international discourse on human rights. Non-profit human rights groups, along with the media and particularly consumer organizations and movements, are targeting the corporations. The result is renewed pressure on public authorities, especially states, to adopt norms and policies ensuring that business practices contribute to, rather than contradict, internationally recognized human rights. The corporations themselves are under considerable pressure to pay attention to human rights, although there remain formidable obstacles to a broad corporate social responsibility that includes human rights.
It has been long recognized that business enterprises that operate across national boundaries have an enormous impact on the modern world. If we compare the revenues of the twenty-five largest transnational corporations (TNCs) with revenues of states, as in Table 8.1, we see that economic significance.
The world's 200 largest TNCs are incorporated in just ten states, as shown in Table 8.2, above all in the United States and Japan. This means, of course, that if one could affect the national policies of these TNCs in this small number of states, one could greatly affect TNCs’ global impact.
Beyond macro-statistics, it is clear that with regard to the internationally recognized right to health, and if we take the case of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa and other places, the role of drug companies (often claiming intellectual property rights) is central.