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

For the first installment of the Sawyer Seminar on Corporations and International Law on February 2, 2018, Professor Erika George from the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah was joined by Princeton University’s Professor Natasha Wheatley. Both scholars dealt with the past, present, and future role of non-state actors in the realm of international law with particular emphasis on human rights.

Professor George opened the seminar with a discussion of her paper, “Protecting Human Rights Through Rankings and Reporting: Corporate Social Responsibility and Social Media Corporations.” Her paper, soon to be a chapter of her forthcoming book, focuses on the response of the Social Media Industry to the fall-out surrounding Yahoo’s turnover to the Chinese government of emails from the account of Chinese journalist Shi Tao. The international backlash to Yahoo’s turnover that was key to Shi Tao’s ultimate imprisonment led to the creation of two projects: The Global Network Initiative (GNI) and the Ranking Digital Rights Initiative — modeled on the World Bank’s Doing Business Reports for countries.

Professor George emphasized that there is immense power in the ICT sector and is convinced that it is possible to come up with better and more protective policies to more adequately address the human rights concerns that the activities of this sector have raised. George is encouraged by these projects that are emerging from the industry and, while the RDR rankings have come out only twice, George is optimistic about the influence they might have towards generating compliance in the future as the Doing Business Reports have done. Upon being questioned from a seminar participant as to whether the Ranking Digital Right initiative truly had the effectiveness for which it was touted, George admitted that she had to be optimistic in her approach that such rankings could render meaningful data.

As for the solution of a binding international treaty on business and human rights discussed in recent years, George was much more pessimistic on its chances of success in light of recent global political trends. Overall, George hopes to ultimately argue that there is power for civil society to be enforcers of human rights when states are unwilling or unable to do so.

Professor Wheatley followed Professor George’s discussion with a presentation of here article, “Collective Rights In and Against International Law: Central Europe as an (Inter)National Legal Laboratory.” Her approach is one that views International law as occurring along the two axes of place and time. Regarding place, she was concerned with how certain regional experiences get universalized and in terms of international law, how it produced and created regions of particular forms of modified sovereignty and qualified sovereignty and thereby established certain regional pattern types. In terms of time, Wheatley was particular drawn to the use of legal personality as a mechanism for law to transcend time as well as how the historian should approach the law’s treatment of time.

The questions that were posed to Professor Wheatley largely revolved around what lessons can be taken from the experience of those Austro-Hungarian nation groups and applied to the realities of present day international law. Notably, she mentioned the experience and legal development in Australia where group rights and even the rights of environmental features are balancing forces to the opposing rights possessed by industry.