This chapter examines how corporations can be held accountable for their human rights conduct and how effective remedies should be available when companies violate human rights. These concerns are central to the business and human rights debate. Enhancing corporate accountability, and with it corporate human rights practice, is the ultimate objective of human rights advocates. Despite a range of early efforts, corporate human rights accountability to date rests upon an incomplete patchwork of legal and non-legal requirements.
The term ‘accountability’ means dramatically different things to different people. The definitional challenges are compounded in practice by individually defined reporting and due diligence processes. If each company has the latitude to define its own human rights programme without reference to an agreed-upon industry standard, corporate human rights performance does not have a reference point, nor can consumers or investors compare companies in the same industry. At this point, existing measures or structures do not provide the kind of transparency that is likely to lead to enhanced corporate accountability.
Simon Zadek’s contribution outlines the foundations of the accountability concept. He observes that ‘continuous improvement in accountability is not to be assumed’.1 He argues that new and more effective accountability mechanisms need to be invented or perfected. These accountability measures need to fit into today’s globalized economy, and they must recognize that private actors are assuming what we think of as public functions. Mindful of these changes, we need to develop accountability measures that respond to this evolving reality. The chapters on legal and non-legal remedial mechanisms, as well as on human rights reporting, echo Zadek’s conclusion by illustrating the imperfect designs of current accountability mechanisms.
1 S. Zadek in this volume, ‘The meaning of accountability’, p. 240.
1 Essentials of accountability
Accountability, quite literally, describes a relationship between those who have power to act and influence others, and those who are affected by their actions. Usually, it is considered to consist of one or both of two elements: ‘answerability’ (making power-holders explain their actions) and ‘enforceability’ (punishing poor or criminal performance), often described in shorthand as ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ accountability, respectively. Accountability can usefully be thought of as the temporary accommodation between the needs of power and the claims of justice. Society or groups of stakeholders cede authority, willingly or otherwise, to those with power. In return, conditions are imposed on those with power – the priest, the general, the politician and a company’s board of directors – who seek to ensure that defined interests of those impacted by their actions are adequately served and protected. Such accommodations, or deals, are temporary because accountability mechanisms often degrade over time and need renewing, sometimes peaceably but at times requiring violence.