A Project of the American Enterprise Institute and the Federalist Society

Commentary on Normative Imperialism


By James P. Kelly III

In a recent commentary in The Wall Street Journal,1 E. Neville Isdell, Chairman and CEO of the Coca-Cola Company, emphasized the responsibility transnational businesses have to help the local communities in which they operate realize the benefits of globalization. As Mr. Isdell explained, rather than yield to the small minority of activists who "will always prefer confrontation, with its attendant publicity, to the search for mutually beneficial common ground," transnational corporations should instead engage in the hard work of "finding the common ground where a company's self-interest and the needs of communities converge."

In short, transnational corporations should reject normative imperialism and embrace responsible civic engagement.

Normative imperialism is the imposition of civil, political, economic, and social norms by international multilateral institutions, nongovernmental organizations, and human rights idealogues in a manner that prevents or interferes with authentic democratic evolution. In its unbridled pursuit of the amorphous and utopian concept of human security, normative imperialism rejects the importance of national sovereignty, the rule of law, democratic discourse, and political action.

Normative imperialism is philosophically rooted in the Religion of Humanity that was the brainchild of mid-nineteenth century French social scientists who desperately needed an organizing principle for society that could provide the altruistic sentiments lost in their rejection of traditional Christianity.

In many ways, the global corporate social responsibility (CSR) movement embodies normative imperialism. The most egregious form of the CSR movement is represented by the 2003 drafting and pursuit of "Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights" by the United Nations Human Rights Council's Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights. Under these proposed, but, fortunately, dormant for the present time, norms, transnational businesses would have a duty to fulfill a broad range of economic and social rights, including the requirements 1) to "encourage social progress and development by expanding economic opportunities - particularly in developing countries and, most importantly, in the least developed countries," and 2) to "respect the right to enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realized and in which sustainable development can be achieved so as to protect the rights of future generations."2

The norms movement has resulted in a call for imposing on businesses the requirement that they perform "human rights impact assessments" or HRIAs in connection with private sector projects. Before beginning any project, transnational corporations would have to submit an HRIA for government and public consideration. In the HRIA, the corporation would be required to:

1) Describe the proposed business activity;

2) Catalogue the legal, regulatory and administrative frameworks to which the activity is subject;

3) Catalogue the human rights frameworks that apply to the business activity, even those arising from international conventions which the host country has not ratified;

4) Explain how the business activity may change the human rights environment, an explanation that even normative imperialists acknowledge is a "difficult and subjective enterprise" that may require complying businesses to "devise multiple scenarios."

5) Prioritize the human rights challenges for the company and make recommendations to address those challenges (i.e., modify project design; collaborate with governments, local communities, and other "helpful" actors like civil society organizations and other companies in the area);

6) Incorporate the human rights recommendations into a management plan, which includes ongoing monitoring, adjustments, and regular consultation with "affected" parties; and,

7) Engage an "experienced team with knowledge of relevant international standards and local culture" (i.e., a team of normative imperialists) to perform the HRIA.3."

In the age of globalization, with the rapid dissemination of human rights knowledge and practices through technology and communication, it is understandable that normative imperialists are tempted to short circuit normal democratic processes in an attempt to impose standards of economic and social conduct. However, as important as it is to articulate and pursue human rights for all people, unless humanitarian emergencies demand otherwise, care must be taken to inform, not indoctrinate; to discuss, not dictate; to convince, not coerce.

Ultimately, normative imperialism has at least three significant negative effects on democratic evolution.

First, normative imperialism deprives citizens of their right to participate in the democratic process. The removal of human rights discourse from the domestic public square through international action threatens personal, political, social, and cultural development.

Second, normative imperialism forces transnational corporations to spend a significant amount of their human and financial resources defending themselves in the marketplace against a nebulous socialist dogma the scope and endpoint of which cannot be definitively measured. These unwarranted expenditures divert the attention of business leaders from reasonable consideration of their legitimate social responsibilities and from the design and implementation of business innovation and growth strategies that could benefit millions of people throughout the world.

Third, some domestic courts facilitate normative imperialism by referring to or relying upon human rights interpretations, rulings or decisions by international institutions or tribunals. In doing so, these courts ignore constitutional or statutory realities in a way that undermines respect for the judiciary by lending credence to claims of judicial activism.

For these and other reasons, businesses with global operations should not capitulate to normative imperialism embodied in the excessive demands of the corporate social responsibility movement. Instead, as Mr. Isdell recommends, transnational corporations should get on with the hard work of finding common ground - the hallmark of authentic democratic evolution.

James P. Kelly, III serves as the Director of International Affairs for the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies. The views expressed in this article are his personal ones.

1. "Things Go Better With Social Justice," The Wall Street Journal, February 3, 2007, p. A10.

2. "Commentary on the Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights," United Nations, U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/Sub.2/2003/38/Rev.2 (2003).

3. "Human Rights Impact Discussion Paper", Prepared for the U.N. Special Representative to the Secretary-General on business and human rights, July 18, 2006, click here