The American Bar Association (ABA) held a meeting in New York from April 1-4, and CSR figured prominently on the agenda. Even in sessions not specifically geared toward CSR, it was mentioned either as a trend to be seriously accounted for in the future or as an issue to be addressed in current decision-making.
The first session of relevance covered the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA). What was interesting about this ATCA meeting that I havenât heard at others was a discussion of where lawyers thought ATCA litigation was heading. The consensus from lawyers on both sides of the issue: it isnât going away. Most notably, Owen Pell of White and Case law firm believes that even if the US Supreme Court cuts back on the scope of the ATCA, the nature of the filings will change, but the litigation will continue. Also of significant note, the panelists pointed out that while the ATCA is a unique tool globally, the EU and individual European countries have developed or are developing alternate tools aimed at corporate accountability and corporate legal liability. For instance, Mr. Pell pointed to the European Convention of Human Rights as a basis of CSR litigation in Europe.
The second session dealt with how well the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been implemented in the 60 years since its creation. One of the four panelists was from Realizing Rights, the business and human rights NGO created by former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson. This panelist spoke specifically to the portion of the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights that covers work rights and the role of non-state actors, mainly corporations, in promoting these rights. She referred to CSR as not only a significant movement but as a significant business, and asked for further efforts to implement a legally-binding framework.
Although the first two sessions covered CSR, the third session was specifically targeted at CSR and was, not surprisingly, titled CSR and Human Rights. The opening comments were in line with the tone of other sessions: globalization is increasingly creating an environment where human rights are taking a legal and reputational toll on corporations. The first speaker asserted that expectations for companies have altered toward addressing systemic change as it becomes increasingly clear that full compliance is not possible. As a result, companies are being asked to take on social obligations before they become legal. The second speaker emphasized that it does no good to have a policy that cannot be enacted or enforced and pointed to the emerging issue of corporate complicity as a reason to demonstrate policy implementation. The third speaker stressed the importance of recognizing that CSR means different things in different countries and contexts. And the fourth speaker wondered how CSR can become more predictable.
Finally, the panel asked the question: at what point does corporate responsibility start and end? What is clear from the ABA conference is that CSR no longer starts and ends with business. The ABA had a whole day of sessions addressing the topic, and while CSR might not be legal in the sense of legislative standards (in the U.S. anyway), it is increasingly subject to a range of legal tools that should factor into company decision-making and policy considerations.
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