Business and human rights

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The growth and interest in corporate responsibility for human rights has in part stemmed from recurring examples of corporate irresponsibility. Over a decade ago, Nike's swoosh was linked to sweatshops and more recently, Apple has been accused of manufacturing its products in factories that had no time for respecting workers' rights. This project, led by Justine Nolan, focuses on the intersection of human rights and business, in particular, examining the accountability of transnational corporations for human rights violations.

Business and Human Rights

In recent years, much has been written about globalisation and the positive and negative impact of business on human rights and how, why and if the corporate sector should be more engaged in both respecting and protecting rights. The debate has largely moved from the ‘if’ business should be engaged with human rights, to the ‘how’ (although there remains a set of persistent objectors who dispute this paradigm shift). But as the role and influence of corporations have increased globally so too has the confusion around what specifically is required of them. And, if there are expectations that companies should be engaged more substantially with human rights, what is the best mechanism for doing so?

Corporations are not governments (who remain the primary protectors of human rights) but some do assume public functions and all of them need to perform due diligence to ensure that they are respecting human rights within their fields of operation. Although ultimately beholden to its shareholders, a corporation’s role in contemporary society – and its ‘social license to operate’– depends now on its ability to meet the expectations of an increasingly diverse range of stakeholders including its workers, consumers, customers, business partners and the community in which it operates. Respect for human rights is now (not unreasonably) one of these expectations.


This project considers how corporations can be held accountable for human rights violations and what mechanisms are or should be in place to prevent the violations from occurring in the first place. In particular, the project considers the role of soft law (such as guidelines, codes of conduct, the Guiding Principles) in establishing responsibility for human rights violations by private non-state actors. The project has a strong regional focus and is looking at mechanisms in the Asia-Pacific for countering corporate human rights abuses, including the potential role that might be played by ASEAN’s Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights on this issue.


Justine Nolan teaches Transnational Business and Human Rights (Laws 8189) (which will be offered in S2 2013) and also covers this topic in her international human rights courses (Laws 3182/Jurd 7382 and Laws 8181/Jurd 7781).


‘Due diligence and human rights: the Australian context’ Roundtable on Human Rights Due Diligence by Companies: Perspectives from Asia and Australia, City University, Hong Kong, August 10-11 2012.

‘How much of what you wear and use was manufactured in a sweatshop?’ UNSW Open Day 1 September 2012

Guest lecture, University of Hong Kong, Business and Human Rights May 1 2012

'The Corporate Responsibility to Respect Human Rights: Soft Law or Not Law?' at the International Conference on The “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework: Charting a Future or Taking the Wrong Turn for Business and Human Rights?, Johannesburg, South Africa, January 23-24 2012.


Click here for a list of related publications to the topic of business and human rights.