Eible on Isiksel, “Corporations and Human Rights” and Follow-Up Book Project

Professor Turkuler Isiksel, James P. Shenton Assistant Professor of the Core Curriculum at Columbia University, discussed her work and fielded questions from students and faculty during the April 13, 2018 meeting of the Mellon Sawyer Seminar on Corporations and International Law. Professor Isiksel offered commentary on her The Rights of Man and the Rights of the Man-Made: Corporations and Human Rights article[1] and a follow-up draft book prospectus.[2]

Professor Isiksel’s opening remarks focused on the trajectory of her work. She noted that her interest in corporations and human rights began with a fascination regarding the European Union’s capacity to govern with cosmopolitan institutions. She soon discovered, however, that the European Union is supranational and functionally oriented, rather than cosmopolitan, and that its institutions prioritize market values. This market value prioritization translates to the human rights area, where Professor Isiksel argues that natural persons are included in the ambit of rights protections insofar as they act like commercial actors. She interprets the European Court of Human Rights as promoting democracy and the rule of law by protecting corporate rights, which works against the supposed trend of increased individual rights. Consequently, expanding the European Union rights regime may actually aid corporations at the expense of individuals. She identifies this phenomenon as part of the dehumanization of human rights and believes that human rights discourse is being appropriated for the protection of private economic actors rather than focusing on the needs of “humanity.”

Her book project further develops these arguments and is focused on showing that current theories of corporate personhood are not theoretically capable of making corporations bearers of international human rights. Her project is about developing delimiting principles for when corporations have rights, and she develops a purposive theory to achieve this end. Professor Isiksel believes that corporations are purposive beings and that focusing on a corporation’s purpose helps to distinguish corporations from human beings and to distinguish among different types of corporations. She insists that a focus on “humanity” is ultimately too reductionist and that a personhood discourse can help determine which corporations get certain rights. Her intuition behind the purposive theory is that any corporation may need no more and no less than those rights needed to carry out its primary purpose.

In response to audience questions, Professor Isiksel provided more details regarding her purposive account of corporations and human rights. She reiterated that the theory is not at the level of legal doctrine but highlighted that any sort of doctrinal test would include delineating a corporation’s lawful / socially-sanctioned purpose, which cannot be idiosyncratic. When asked if the theory becomes too political if it focuses on social purpose or social good, Professor Isiksel responded that the theory deals with private purpose, and the law rewards private purpose if it is legitimate in the eyes of the polity. She reiterated that private corporate purposes protected by rights cannot tread on the kaleidoscope of “public interests” that society and the law protects. For Professor Isiksel, part of the reason that “corporate rights” have inflated corporate power so much is because there has been no countervailing public interest at play. Her purposive theory includes such a balancing of interests when determining if a corporation has certain rights.

Professor Isiksel also agreed with an audience member suggestion that it may be useful to more explicitly outline the three inputs of the purposive theory: corporation, state, and individual. For Professor Isiksel, the individuals of the corporation use corporations as a vehicle to achieve a purpose, and the state checks the bona fides of the corporation’s purpose to review whether the corporation’s rights claims are necessary to achieve the corporation’s stated purpose or if denying rights would unduly frustrate the individuals behind the corporation’s purpose. This helps Professor Isiksel insist on an individualized basis of rights for corporations, which is a primary aim of her book project.

[1] Turkuler Isiksel, The Rights of Man and the Rights of the Man-Made: Corporations and Human Rights, 38 Hum. Rts. Q. 294 (2016).

[2] The draft book prospectus is on file with Professor Isiksel.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.