Traditionally, states are regarded as the subject of international law. This position is reinforced under international human rights instruments, where human rights obligations are imposed on states. In most international and regional human rights instruments, the obligation to respect, protect, and fulfil human rights are addressed to states parties to the instruments. This has led to the belief, albeit erroneously, that non-state actors cannot be held accountable for human rights violations. However, in recent times, the activities of multinational companies are beginning to have adverse effects on the enjoyment of human rights across the world, particularly in developing countries. Documented evidence exists of how activities of multinational companies (MNCs) have led to gross human rights violations in developing countries. Such practices range from unfair labour practices, degradation of the environment to complicity in attacks on union leaders or members. These hitherto unnoticed negative activities of multinational companies have been exposed by concerted efforts of activists and civil society groups in developing countries. Notable among these include labour malpractices committed by Nike in Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries and the complicity of Royal Dutch Shell in the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other human rights activists in Nigeria. More recent campaigns have targeted Coca-Cola for alleged involvement of its bottlers in Colombia in the assassination of trade union leaders.
Sadly, human rights abuses committed by multinational companies often go un-redressed in many developing countries. This is often due to the fact that most multinational companies have their headquarters somewhere else and host countries are sometimes either unwilling or lack the political will to take up actions against these companies. There is now a growing consensus under international law that multinational companies should be held accountable for the human rights violations they commit. Indeed, over the years different initiatives have been adopted to hold MNC accountable for human rights violations. These include the concept on horizontality of human rights, enactment of national legislation, such as the Alien Tort Claims Act, and more recently the adoption of the Principles on Extraterritoriality of Obligations in the Area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, by a group of lawyers and human rights experts at a gathering convened by the Maastricht University in September 2011.