Voloshin on Isiksel, “A Corporate Right to Have Rights?”

The Sawyer Seminar on Corporations and International Law welcomed Professor Turkuler Isiksel, the James P. Shenton Assistant Professor of the Core Curriculum at Columbia University, for its final class meeting of the semester on April 13, 2018. In this conclusory event, Professor Isiksel addressed many of the topics the Sawyer Seminar has covered throughout the semester while also touching on her inspiration behind her paper, “The Rights of Man and the Rights of Man-Made: Corporations and Human Rights.” Moreover, Professor Isiksel elaborated that her research on corporations, international law, and human rights has influenced a prospective book idea, “A Corporate Right to Have Rights? Personhood and Corporate Agency in a Global Age.” Professor Isiksel previewed “A Corporate Right to Have Rights?” to the Sawyer Seminar and discussed the main themes of her work but also explained that book, and much of the answers to questions posed by students, are still in the development phase.

Professor Isiksel initiated the discussion by explaining that her research on corporations, human rights, and international law originated from her academic work on the European Union. Hoping to examine a “cosmopolitan institution,” Professor Isiksel discovered that the European Union actually operated in a far different manner than she had originally envisioned. Specifically, Professor Isiksel found it troubling that corporations, under the European Union and current international investment arbitration regimes, were granted moral, constitutional, and human rights claims that put them on either equal footing with individuals, or in most cases afforded them extra privileges that domestic corporations and individuals were not granted. Additionally, these extra privileges were never initially bargained for by corporations but because of shifting legal doctrine, corporations have become the prime beneficiaries. Professor Isiksel referred to this expansion of corporate rights as the “dehumanization” of human rights because it has severely undermined the individual human rights movement. This shift has also diverted the focus of regulatory bodies to the protection of commercial interests of private firms at the expense of urgent individual human rights interests.

Rather than relying on previously dominant theories of corporate personhood, Professor Isiksel advocates for a purposive approach as a potential solution to the “dehumanization” of human rights. Professor Isiksel’s purposive approach theory requires policy makers and regulators to examine the specific purpose that a corporation has been created for. The rights that a corporation should be afforded can be better assessed by focusing on the corporation’s purpose and examining its charter, rather than expanding human rights doctrine into the corporate personhood.

Professor Isiksel admitted that her purposive approach theory is not fully developed, but it can serve as an important starting point for regulators examining the relationship between corporations, international law, and human rights. Additionally, Professor Isiksel contended that the implications of recognizing corporations as legal persons under a human rights framework should not be viewed from a political lens. By this Professor Isiksel asserted that the expansion of corporate rights under human rights doctrine is neither a conservative or liberal issue. Rather, we should recognize that corporations are necessary to daily life and they provide valuable contributions to society. Her work does not argue that one type of corporation provides more value than another. Instead, by examining the specific purpose of a corporation, regulators can set boundaries on the expanding legal of rights of international corporations in a way that does not undermine individual human rights.

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