Over the years, there have been growing calls for corporations to act responsibly and transparently in their economic, social and environmental pursuits. This is more so at a time when “public trust of business activity is in short supply” generally. In the 2000s, a new approach which, besides creating a nexus between capitalism and universal inequality and injustice also advocated for regulatory oversight on the activities of transnational corporations (TNCs) emerged. This approach is known as corporate accountability. In its basic form, corporate accountability deals with monitoring the behaviour of companies or their agents to protect the “interests of shareholders and other stakeholders.” It attempts to strike a delicate balance between the selfish interests of powerful corporations and citizens. As such, corporate accountability is one way of preventing transnational corporations from among others, trampling on human rights.
In the human rights sphere, the push for corporate accountability is closely linked to the concept of business and human rights. Traditionally, human rights obligations are placed on States to respect, protect and fulfil human rights. However, a body of knowledge has emerged to the effect that rights predate the State and can exist in spite of the state. Accordingly, core human rights obligations have been vested on non-state actors as well including corporations and investors. Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, corporations “should avoid infringing on the human rights of others and should address adverse human rights impacts with which they are involved.” This obligation applies for internationally recognised rights and to all businesses “regardless of their size, sector, operational context, ownership and structure.”
Be that as it may, the discussion of corporate accountability, especially in Africa has paid more attention towards human rights abuses associated with land acquisition, labour and employment rights, environment and conservation, food security, water, among others. While these are equally important, the advent of new technologies has given corporations opportunities to create new business models and lifestyles which, if unchecked equally have profound human rights implications. Digitalization greatly influences business operations including facilitating companies to conduct their commercial activities cost-effectively in places they hitherto deemed impractical to operate in. Multinational companies are also increasingly using information technology for managing their operations across borders. At the same time, some multinationals have developed innovations that have disrupted established sectors like media, transport, hospitality, among others. The work of corporations like Uber, Meta, Google, Amazon, among others raise data and privacy concerns, employment rights, misinformation, inequality, and even fuelling conflicts.
Whereas there has been extensive research on corporate accountability, there is limited scholarly inquiry on how to hold corporations accountable for corporate misconduct perpetrated by technological innovations especially in third world countries. These include rights linked to data privacy, non-discrimination, cybercrimes, as well as loss of jobs. Cognisant of the reality that technological innovations can threaten “human dignity, autonomy and privacy and the exercise of human rights in general”, in the absence of appropriate safeguards, it is important to ensure that they do not worsen the situation.
Let the dirty work start…