Persecution and Labor Migrations Due to Corporate “Environmental” Exploitation: Waiting for the UNHRC’s Binding Treaty on Transnational Business Activities?

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Policy debates on the rights and international status of climate refugees, environmental migrants, or environmentally displaced persons have unleashed detailed scholarly commentaries over the last decade, and virtually all standpoints have been scrutinized in literature already. Nevertheless, one aspect of this debate has gone somewhat off the radar in recent years: the (co-)responsibilities of incorporated subsidiaries of transnational corporations in triggering or exacerbating pseudo-environmentally motivated mass-movements of workers and related strata of the populations domiciled where these corporations operate. Despite such neglect, mentioned exploitative occurrences only increased in recent years, and the trend speaks for their further expansion as globalization complexifies, world population increases, and climate disruption worsens. Against this backdrop of urgency, it seems essential to rediscover this angle of the debate; that is, to revitalize ethical and legal discourses on private actors and what intervention should be required of the international community in order for transnational corporations to take action and observe minimal standards of environmental good practice, especially in corporate policy areas bearing a direct impact on labor conditions, social development, and ultimately on the pulling or restraining factors of migration. The first international binding Treaty on business and human rights, currently being negotiated in Geneva within the United Nations Human Rights Council and apparently close to finalization, builds exactly on these concerns. In each of its 2018 Zero Draft, 2019 Revised Draft, 2020 Second Revised Draft, and 2021 Third Revised Draft, the Treaty provides protection to those workers and their families who are factually deprived of their lands due to corporate soil exploitation. In this sense, the problem will manifest itself under the new (yet not so new) terms of distinguishing between migrations fully caused or simply catalyzed or facilitated by localized environmental pollution and/or largescale climate-change-related phenomena. Pursuant to this new covenant, States would be compelled to ensure that companies operating within their prescriptive jurisdiction respect all human rights. Eventually, while this Treaty should generally be welcomed as it sheds new light on business-caused environmental migrations and it decompartmentalizes related human rights, its current formulation might not significantly contribute to the clarification of certain definitions. Most perplexingly, it does not establish a straightforward legal distinction between environmental migrations induced or ‘simply’ precipitated by corporate misconduct.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)31-74
Number of pages44
JournalLoyola University Chicago International Law Review
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2022


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