4.3 The application of international law and human rights principles to industrial incidents
Ideally, robust national policy and law should secure adequate protection for individuals and this includes ensuring adequate health and safety protections for those affected by commercial activity. In practice, however, national policy does not help in those countries where the enforcement of regulatory controls is weak or non-existent.
It may be that international law and the development of a body of human rights principles have the capacity to provide more protection from corporate abuses than national laws. Slapper (2011) observed that positing human rights norms offers a way to universally recognise minimum standards of corporate behaviour cross-jurisdictionally, i.e. across organisations in all jurisdictions, in spite of the barriers that geography ordinarily represents. Human rights norms are not restricted in their geographical application, unlike criminal laws, which are invariably specific to the jurisdiction enacting them. They can be characterised as ‘triggers’ or mechanisms for state intervention where the state itself shows little or no impetus to act. In this way, human rights norms can set high standards and expectations of states in their attempts to enact domestic legislation which complies with their human rights obligations.
The right to life is a fundamental human right included in all human rights charters and would appear to offer victims of corporate failings some hope of a remedy in this context. For instance, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) requires that the right to life is protected by law, as does Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The work of the ILO in setting international labour standards also serves to protect and develop human rights norms. Arguably, the signatories to these agreements are in breach of their obligations whenever they fail to take adequate steps to protect individuals from death or serious injury.
The protection offered by human rights principles against corporate abuse is limited, as human rights charters invariably provide a set of standards or guarantees for individuals against significant mistreatment by the State, but not directly against the business organisations themselves. This limitation is in the process of being addressed by John Ruggie in his work for the United Nations.