For Human Rights Beyond Borders

Human Rights have been locked up behind domestic bars to prevent their universal application to globalization and its much needed regulation. Extraterritorial obligations (ETOs) unlock human rights.

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Focal Areas

The ETO Consortium's works encompasses a wide range of policy areas and specific rights, reflecting the diversity of its members. These can be broadly cluestered into five Focal Areas:

  • Trade, Investment, and Finance
  • Transnational Corporations
  • Natural Resource Grabbing and Eco-destruction
  • International Cooperation and Development Assistance
  • Promotion and Accountability through International and Regional Fora

Some of these areas and related topics count on Focal Points. These are members of the Consortium who play a proactive role in advancing the implementation of ETOs in these particular areas and who can be approached by organisations and individuals seeking further information or wishing to collaborate.

Advancing the Implementation of ETOs through International and Regional Human Rights Systems

Regional and international human rights bodies play a crucial role in monitoring and promoting State compliance with their ETOs. Their pronouncements – whether general or in relation to specific States – moreover contribute to further clarifying the extraterritorial dimensions of States’ obligations under international law.

ETO Consortium members have been working extensively with UN and regional human rights mechanisms in advancing the implementation of ETOs and holding States accountable for extraterritorial violations. This has been done through the submission of parallel reports documenting extraterritorial violations in State review procedures, thematic briefings of Committee/Commission members and Special Procedures, as well as the presentation of concrete cases in the context of complaint procedures.

Focal Points:

  • Parallel Reporting and Strategic Litigation [Bret Thiele, Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights].
  • Committee on the Rights of the Child [Alessia Bigi, IBFAN-GIFA].

Transnational Corporations

Transnational corporations (TNCs) can impact human rights in many ways. This includes environmental pollution; displacement of communities and destruction of livelihoods; privatization and commodification of natural resources and public services; and the exploitation of workers.

TNCs have also gained substantial influence in public policy making, with policies increasingly geared towards corporate interests rather than the realization of human rights. The complex legal structures of transnational corporations combined with the immense financial and political resources at their disposal, and respective power imbalance vis-à-vis communities affected by their activities, pose huge challenges when it comes to holding them accountable for human rights abuses.

The Maastricht Principles provide guidance on the ETOs States have with regard to regulating and holding private companies accountable. They clarify the situations under which States have obligations to regulate or to take measures to influence the activities of corporations abroad (ETOPs 24-26). They also stress the obligation of States to cooperate in regulating and holding transnational corporations accountable for human rights abuses, and ensuring access to effective remedies for those affected (ETOP 27). The current process at the UN Human Rights Council to develop an international treaty for the regulation of TNCs and other business enterprises, in which several of the ETO Consortium’s members participate, is of major importance for implementing States’ ETOs in the context of business operations.

Focal Points: Several members working in this field. Contact ETOC Secretariat for further information.

Natural Resource Grabbing and Eco-destruction

The highly unequal distribution of access to and control over land and other natural resources remains an issue of serious concern across regions. It is one of the key causes for hunger and malnutrition and intimately linked to violations of the human rights to food and nutrition, water, housing, health, work and self-determination.

The trend towards the (re-)concentration of land ownership and the reversal of redistributive agrarian reform processes can be observed even in countries with traditionally more egalitarian patterns of access to land. A global process is underway whereby powerful private and public investors, national and foreign, conclude agreements with States to take control over large surfaces of land and related natural resources with significant implications for food sovereignty and the realisation of ESC rights. “Natural resource grabbing” is often accompanied by violent displacements and evictions, and widespread criminalization of human rights defenders.

A healthy planet is an essential prerequisite for the realization of human rights. Eco-destruction and climate change fundamentally affect people’s access to food and water, their health and livelihoods, and contribute to conflicts and displacements.

States’ extraterritorial obligations require them to take measures to ensure their own policies and actions, as well as those by private actors they can regulate or influence, do not cause harm to the enjoyment of human rights in other countries (ETOPs 13, 20, 21, 24). Moreover, they must cooperate with each other to create an international environment that is conducive to the universal fulfilment of human rights (ETOP 29). This includes individual and collective measures to prevent/cease the destruction of our planet and the grabbing of its natural resources, and to provide effective remedies to individuals and communities whose rights have been affected by such (ETOP 37).

Focal Points:

International Cooperation and Development Assistance

International cooperation plays a central role in the universal realisation of human rights. Transboundary human rights challenges, including eco-destruction, tax avoidance, and human rights abuses by transnational corporations, can only be addressed through the concerted actions and cooperation of all States. States have a duty to cooperate not only to prevent harm but also to develop a clear international policy and legal framework that upholds the primacy of human rights and contributes to their universal fulfilment.

Development assistance is one aspect of States duty to cooperate internationally. States have obligations to seek and provide assistance, where such is required for the fulfilment of human rights (ETOP 33-35). The duty to assist another State in the fulfilment of ESC rights is commensurate with the economic resources and international influence of each State (ETOP 31).

In cooperating towards the fulfilment of ESC rights, States must adhere to human rights principles and priorities, such as the prioritization of marginalized groups and the realization of minimum essential levels of rights (ETOP 32). They must moreover take steps to prevent development projects from undermining human rights in the country where they are implemented and ensure the provision of remedies to those negatively affected by development projects (ETOPs 13, 37).

International cooperation is often carried out under the umbrella of international organisations such as the UN. International financial institutions (IFIs), such as the World Bank or the IMF, as well as regional development banks, moreover play an important role in the financing of development projects. As members of these organisations, States have extraterritorial obligations to ensure that the respective organisations act in accordance with human rights, and do not contribute to human rights impairments in member countries (ETOP 15).

Focal Points:

Trade, Investment, and Finance

International and regional trade and investment agreements can have substantial impacts, both direct and indirect, on the universal realization of human rights. Potential negative effects include the downgrading of public health and safety standards, the destruction of local markets and livelihoods of small-scale food producers, and the introduction of stringent property rights regimes that impede access to essential medicines and seeds. They can moreover curtail public policy space required to implement measures towards the progressive realization of human rights. An illustration of this is the recent wave of corporate lawsuits under Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanisms that target public policies in the area of taxation, public health, environment, and labor rights.

States’ extraterritorial obligations require them to ensure that international agreements, including in the area of trade, investment, and finances, do not interfere with the enjoyment of human rights in other countries. Bilateral and multilateral treaties in these and other areas must be elaborated, interpreted and applied consistent with human rights obligations (ETOP 17). This implies the conduct of prior human rights impact assessments as well as monitoring and adjustment of policies and laws to ensure human rights compliance (ETOP 14).

States’ ETOs in the context of trade, investment and financial policies and agreements go beyond ensuring that these do not harm human rights: They require States to create an international environment that is conducive to the universal fulfilment of human rights (ETOP 29). One central aspect of such enabling environment relates to the ability of States to raise and dispose of the financial resources needed to implement measures aimed at the progressive realization of human rights. This implies the cooperation of States to prevent and punish cross-border tax abuse and corruption, as well as steps towards reducing the debt burden of countries.

 Focal Points: