Exploring the boundaries of international law
Exploring the boundaries of international law

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Exploring the boundaries of international law

1.1 Non-state actors

Certain non-state actors, such as international organisations, are also recognised as being legal persons in international law. Other entities, such as non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and multinational corporations (MNCs), are active internationally, but have more limited international status. In recent years, human rights groups have highlighted the limitation of national law to control the activities of MNCs operating in states with poor governance, and have lobbied for the development of increased international corporate accountability. The United Nations (UN) Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) 1948 and subsequent UN conventions are framed in terms that are wide enough to encompass business organisations.

The Preamble to the UDHR declares that it is ‘a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society ’ are under an obligation to promote the ideals set out in the declaration. In 2011 the UN Human Rights Committee endorsed John Ruggie’s Guiding Principles for the implementation of the UN’s ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ Framework for the protection of human rights in the conduct of business.

John Ruggie, a Harvard professor, was appointed by the UN as the Secretary-General’s Special Representative (UN SRSG) for Business and Human Rights in 2005 to work on the issue of human rights and MNCs.

Only states have international capacity to the full degree. Other entities have international capacity to varying degrees depending on their role within the international legal system. This is indicated in Reparation for Injuries suffered in the Service of the United Nations Advisory Opinion ICJ Rep 1949, 178:

The subjects of law in any legal system are not necessarily identical in their nature or the extent of their rights, and their nature depends upon the needs of the community.


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