Yang on George and Wheatley, “Corporate Rights and Responsibilities: Past and Present”

The first guest speaker session of the spring semester of the Sawyer Seminar on Corporation and International Law on February 2, 2018 welcomed Professor Erika George, of the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law, and Professor Natasha Wheatley, of Princeton University. The two scholars addressed the issue of the intersection between corporations, international law, and human rights.

While presenting her article, Protecting Human Rights Through Rankings and Reporting: Corporate Social Responsibility and Social Media Corporations, Professor George focused on the ways corporations can have an impact on human rights. She discussed Ranking Digital Rights, a nonprofit that targets investors with its Corporate Accountability Index in the hopes of influencing companies to become more accountable in regards to preventing potential human rights violations. She believes this will allow companies to know what the risks are likely to be and will show investors where exposures are likely to be. Ultimately, she believes this can lead to policy changes for corporations and can have impacts on market shares and values.

While presenting her article, Collective Rights In and Against International Law: Central Europe as an (Inter)National Legal Laboratory, Professor Wheatley discussed how she wanted to examine the ways of historicizing international law and the question of what it means to think about something historically. From this, she came up with two answers: considering international law in time and international law in place. Professor Wheatley said she believes the international law in time analysis provides a different set of directions afforded to human rights. Moreover, she believes this analysis is particularly of interest to the concept of a fictional legal personality because it is the mechanism by which law is able to transcend time. With regard to international law in place, she used minority rights as a case study to show how international law creates places of modified sovereignty and to propose a different way into history.

Understandably, given the breadth of the issue of discussion, both speakers were asked wide-ranging questions. Quite a few of the questions that Professor George was asked revolved around the issue of the rankings and what rankings about corporate accountability truly measure: the transparency or willingness to create their own human rights regulations or a more substantive approach to determine how well corporations are protecting human rights. In response to these question, Professor George admitted that while rankings would like to rank corporations on the substantive aspect, sometimes it is difficult because corporations are less willing to reveal information when they believe they are being evaluated by subjective measures as opposed to objective measures like whether they have regulations in place.

Many of the questions that Professor Wheatley was asked were regarding the question of what concepts were salvageable from the failed minority rights regime. Professor Wheatley explained that to best understand this, it was best to uncouple minority rights from politics. Once that was done, it was possible to see that the concept of minorities having a connection to territory is still a strong belief, particularly in Australia. She provided examples of how indigenous groups have been granted titles to land and discussed how, in some ways, it is all about an original conception of how tightly bound the indigenous people are with the land. In this way, legal personalities are being tied to natural formations.

Both scholars were able to create a platform upon which the audience could consider the role that different entities have to value human rights in an international setting. Professor George’s work showed how, in the event that states fail to properly value human rights, corporations can pick up the mantle and lead the way. Professor Wheatley’s work explained how minority rights have not been completely extinguished and that the minority regime is not entirely a story about failure. Together, they have laid a foundation for the intersection of corporations, international law, and human rights that will be built upon in future sessions.