Defining the Limits of Corporate Responsibilities against the Concept of Legal Positive Obligations

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There is currently a widespread societal expectation for businesses to respect and support human rights. The apparent simplicity of this expectation contrasts sharply against the difficulty of specifying with precision the boundaries of corporate social responsibilities (CSR). This Article argues that the basis of these difficulties is the uncertainty regarding the responsibility of a business for the actions of third parties. In contrast, the responsibility for abuses caused by a corporation’s own actions is less controversial and is grounded in tort laws. As made apparent by numerous CSR front-page stories, responsibility may also arise from a company’s culpable omission to monitor and influence its business partners. This Article draws attention to the importance of better understanding the inherent tensions affecting positive obligations to act. The analysis herein reviews existing CSR literature and its reliance on the concept of “complicity,” and draws on various bodies of law—particularly the law of negligence and international human-rights law (IHRL)—to enrich discussions with the authoritative reasoning of courts that have dealt previously with similar issues.