Companies sometimes leverage their power with states to obtain favourable treatment, security and impunity. Where corporate interests have “captured” the state or its agents, communities, human rights defenders and other rights holders risk losing fundamental protections and access to justice.

Companies’ human rights responsibilities independent from states

It is the state’s duty to protect human rights.[1] However, when the state has a bad track record in this regard, companies should not hide behind the state’s actions in the name of protecting corporate interests. Under the current international normative framework for business and human rights, companies have a responsibility that is independent from states to prevent and address human rights abuses in relation to their business activities.[2]

Four ways to utilise state power

The instruments used by companies to gain and leverage state assistance vary in their legality and acceptance. One way companies do this is by exploiting the governance gaps created by states: (foreign) investment is attractive to governments, thus luring companies often involves preferential treatment of these entities, including disregarding internationally accepted standards for corporate conduct. Furthermore, corporate lobbying against regulations intended to protect human rights and the environment, but that potentially harm business interests, is a common practice. Another way companies use state power to avoid having to take responsibility for human rights abuses is by aligning with suppressive state institutions that violate human rights. Finally, companies can engage state security forces to protect their business interests, even when serious human rights violations can be expected as a result.

[1] United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. “International Human Rights Law” (accessed June 17, 2020)

[2] United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. “Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United Nations ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ Framework,” 2011.