Do Companies have Human Rights? - The Emerging Jurisprudence in Regional Courts

Since companies are not people who “live and breathe”, some academic commentators categorically refuse their quality as human rights holders. The process of “dehumanisation of human rights” is associated with the danger of entrenching corporate privileges. The seminar deals with this question analysing the different perspectives of regional economic courts and regional human rights courts. Courts of regional economic communities (REC) all over the world, originally designed as judicial instances competent for enforcing economic integration rules, have taken up proceedings initiated by natural and legal persons to expand the supranational legal system to encompass basic and human rights. This process can be illustrated at the examples of the courts of the European Union, the European Economic Area, the East African Community, and, in some regards, the Caribbean Community and the Economic Community of West African States. For some of these courts, acknowledging corporate human rights is the natural response to the key role that corporate economic actors play in the integration programme. Regional human rights courts, by contrast, partly struggle to recognise companies as human rights holders and as key legitimation figures. The European Court of Human Rights, on the one hand, has a rich but inconsistent body of case law in which companies are either accepted as human rights holders in their own right or understood as mere vehicles for individuals behind them. Critically viewed, the one approach excludes the other. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, on the other hand, held that legal entities generally do not enjoy the rights established under the American Convention and do not have direct access to the Inter-American System under a victim status. The main reason for this rejection is that the protection system is limited to “human beings” and closed for companies which are legal fictions that do not enjoy real existence in the material order. From a comparative law perspective, the seminar critically examines the theoretical raison d’être of corporate human rights and analyses practical challenges of the different approaches.

Patricia Wiater is Associate Professor of Basic and Human Rights Law at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg and a member of the Centre for Human Rights Erlangen-Nürnberg. She holds a French-German doctorate in Law with a thesis on European Human Rights Law and Cultural Pluralism from the University of Strasbourg and the University of Leipzig and a doctorate in Political Sciences from the University of Freiburg. In her recently published Habilitation thesis (Internationale Individualkläger), completed at LMU Munich, she dealt with the procedural role and function private litigants have in international economic law. She took a comparative law perspective on regional economic integration, international investment law and the law of the sea. The outcomes of her analysis drew Patricia’s attention to the subject status of private business entities in international law and to their hybrid status as human rights holders and addressees of human rights obligations.

Nick Friedman will act as discussant. Nick is a Lecturer and Fellow in Public Law at St John’s College, Cambridge, and an Affiliated Lecturer in the Cambridge Law Faculty. His research is concerned with the application of public law principles to corporate regulation. Before joining Cambridge, Nick was the Warburg Junior Research Fellow in Law at St Anne’s College, Oxford, a Visiting Researcher at the Bonavero Institute for Human Rights, a Procter Fellow at Princeton University, a law clerk at the Constitutional Court of South Africa, and a senior litigation associate at Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP in New York.