After 100 days in office, the Trump Administration continues to wear its abject disdain for human rights on its sleeve. It has threatened to leave the United Nations Human Rights Council and has signalled Trump’s enthusiasm for the most extreme forms of torture. A number of his executive orders have directly contravened the principles of human rights, including his racist attack on particular categories of immigrants and his restrictions on a woman’s right to choose.
Wednesday’s decision to slash corporation tax demonstrates clearly that there is one category of ‘persons’ to which Trump’s disdain for human rights does not apparently extend. His ‘corporate cabinet’ is packed with individuals who have made their name proclaiming the rights of corporations. Top of the list is the Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, who in a number of key cases has ruled against the claims of workers, to uphold the rights of their corporate employers.
The administration’s determination to uphold the rights of big business over the rights of the people has attracted condemnation from Human Rights Watch. The organisation has described the administration’s choice of Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency as alarming – with good reason. One of Pruitt’s earliest decisions was to allow continued use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos, despite conclusions from US government scientists that it can cause learning deficits, impacts on brain development, reproductive health problems, and increased rates of cancer, particularly in children.
In the early 1970s, global north nations used the process of extending human rights protections to corporate activities to protect corporations themselves.
Over the past 100 days, Trump has demonstrated time and again that business trumps human rights. Just before taking office, he confirmed his support for the completion of the Dakota Pipeline; and shortly after his inauguration he signed an executive order jump-starting the project. The pipeline crosses through traditional lands of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. There has been no free, prior and informed consent for the project, which breaches both international recommendations from the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and the Organisation of American States’ American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The way that this contradiction between the rights of people and the rights of corporations is played out is by no means a new phenomenon. Indeed, this contradiction is an enduring theme in the development of policy in the UN for over four decades, as we note in our new book on the subject. In the early 1970s, amidst optimism for the development of a UN Code of Conduct for Transnational Corporations, 'global north' nations used the process of extending human rights protections to corporate activities to protect corporations themselves. Human rights agendas were perversely used to demand a “right to development” that was quickly translated into a right to protection against the loss of profits. Such protections became known as a “treatment standard” and it was conceived to give home-state transnational corporations (TNCs) the right to protection from ‘discriminatory’ or other potentially damaging treatment from host states (especially former colonies and developing nations).
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This is not an uncommon pattern: initiatives that start out to regulate misconduct have often turned to corporate advantage. As we noted in an article published recently on The Conversation, law very often privileges the rights of corporate persons above flesh and blood persons.
Initiatives that start out to regulate misconduct have often turned to corporate advantage.
This makes a 2014 initiative at the UN Human Rights Council significant in its mandate to “elaborate an international legally binding instrument to regulate, in international human rights law, the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises”. Under the Obama administration, the US, along with most of the countries that headquarter the biggest corporations, have been staunchly opposed to this initiative from the outset, and have sought to undermine or obstruct the UN Human Rights Council’s process. After losing the initial vote for the Resolution, the US and the EU warned they would not cooperate with the Open-ended Intergovernmental Working Group (OEIGWG), established to coordinate the negotiations for the proposed treaty. In the first session, the EU and a number of its Member States walked out.
Having said this, Trump is perhaps the most hostile US President the UN has ever faced. Trump’s first 100 days have proven that far from being anti-establishment and anti-Wall Street, the 45th President of the US is doing everything he can to privilege the rights of corporations over people.
If he follows through with his threat to remove the US from the UN Human Rights Council, one bonus for Trump is that the US would not have to even pretend to comply with any treaty aimed at making corporations accountable for human rights violations.