Exploring Responsibility : Public and Private in Human Rights Protection
Abstract: The theory and practice of international relations are replete with dilemmas related to the distribution of responsibility for human rights protection. Institutionalized notions of public and private empower and shape knowledge of what the spheres of responsibility signify for different kinds of actors. This study examines how the public-private distinction is manifested in controversy concerning the character of corporate social responsibility. The study develops a conceptual framework centered on the public-private distinction and the concept of responsibility, drawing attention to the ambiguous and political character of the distinction. Through the analytical prism of the framework, debates concerning responsibility in the case of transnational oil corporations operating in zones where human rights violations are committed by governments are studied. A closer examination is undertaken of the controversy surrounding a Canadian headquartered oil company that operated in Sudan between 1998 and 2002. A range of political, legal and moral tensions arise from boundary-drawing processes between public and private in debates on the distribution of responsibility for human rights protection. The boundary between public and private responsibility is found to be a site of struggle, leading to charges of complicity in human rights abuse. Reconfigurations of authority and power relations question the state-centric focus of the international human rights regime. In the study is discerned an emerging global public domain of action where nonstate actors such as transnational corporations and advocacy NGOs interact and set agendas and standards. The pluralization of authority relations in webs of global governance and the expansion of private sector self-regulation challenge the association of authority with public actors that are accountable through political institutions. This diversification of authority relations is scrutinized in light of the principle of democratic accountability and legitimacy. Efforts at self-regulation, as well as the development of mechanisms for holding transnational corporations accountable for their impact on social conditions, expand the terrain of accountability in zones of human rights violations where transnational corporations are present. This indicates that the territorial boundaries of accountability systems related to human rights are becoming recast into a less territorially defined transnational sphere of action, influence, contestation and answerability. The analysis demonstrates that the study of responsibility, accountability and authority in the field of international relations is confronted with new challenges through the examination of corporate social responsibility in a global governance setting.
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