Direct vs. Indirect Obligations of Corporations Under International Law


International law today addresses the conduct of private corporations in a variety of areas. With very few exceptions, however, international law regulates corporate conduct indirectly–that is, by requiring states to enact and enforce regulations applicable to corporations and other non-state actors. Only a small number of international legal norms–primarily those relating to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and forced labor–apply directly to non-state actors. Scholars have argued forcefully that international law should move in the direction of directly imposing obligations on corporations. These arguments overlook important aspects of the problem. If international legal norms were extended to corporations and backed by effective enforcement mechanisms, states would lose control over compliance with the norms. If not accompanied by an effective enforcement mechanism, the norms would probably be widely disregarded. The first option is likely to be strongly resisted by states; the second option would do little for the interests sought to be protected and would be bad for international law.