Influence of soft law grows in international governance

Hotel cleaners celebrate winning a legal battle against their employers as members of the entertainment industry call for stronger support from the state after their industry was devastated by COVID-19. Photo by Sam Tarling/Getty Images.
Hotel cleaners celebrate winning a legal battle against their employers as members of the entertainment industry call for stronger support from the state after their industry was devastated by COVID-19. Photo by Sam Tarling/Getty Images.

As the UK government’s recent Integrated Review points out, international law-making in a fragmented international order is becoming increasingly difficult.

Geopolitical tensions, and the length of time required to agree multilateral treaties – typically decades – make it challenging to reach binding agreements in complex and fast-evolving policy areas such as climate change and technology governance.

As a result, the regulation of international behaviour through soft law – meaning non-binding instruments such as principles, codes of conduct or declarations – is starting to assume greater significance. And states increasingly find soft law-making attractive because there are relatively fewer decision costs involved.

Soft law also lays the ground for the possibility of transforming into hard law if, over time, its principles become widely accepted and it is evident states are treating them as legal obligations. And the emergence of a hybrid of both soft and hard law components in treaties has started to develop in recent years, such as the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

Opening access to global governance

A major attraction of soft law-making is that it provides for non-traditional, non-state actors to take part in the process of global governance. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), social movements, corporate sector, and individuals are more easily drawn into soft law-making compared to treaties, to which only states can be party.

This holds out the promise for greater inclusiveness in global rulemaking and governance, but soft law processes also pose many challenges. Soft law provides an avenue for states to avoid legal obligations on important subjects and developing rules in such an informal manner can lead to fragmentation and a lack of coherence in the international system.

As noted in dialogues held under Chatham House’s Inclusive Governance Initiative, some areas of international interaction require hard law, such as economic competition, certain international security issues, and aspects of the global commons. In these areas, soft law is just not appropriate or enough.

Soft law measures such as codes of conduct may be useful in rapidly developing areas such as technology, as they are more flexible and adaptable than hard law. And they may be particularly effective if used in conjunction with binding regulation, and subject to monitoring and enforcement by a regulator, as in recent proposals by the European Union (EU) for a Digital Services Act.

The Chatham House Inclusive Governance Initiative report highlights that the proliferation of soft law does not necessarily have to compete with the existing system of hard law, so long as soft law solutions do not conflict with, or undermine, hard law such as existing treaty provisions.

Case study: Business and human rights

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) are an interesting example of both the promise of soft law-making, and its challenges. Officially adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2011, the UNGPs set out the global standard of what is expected of companies as regards human rights due diligence (HRDD) to prevent and address business-related human rights harms.

The sections on HRDD in the UNGPs have been constructed as a non-binding ‘social’ standard of conduct, though with the expectation that this would eventually be reinforced through a “smart mix” of both soft law and hard law initiatives. Arguments in favour of the predominantly soft law approach at the time – subsequently borne out in practice – were that this would encourage a higher level of participation, by states and businesses in particular, and better foster creativity and innovation in a still-developing field.

The UNGPs recognize and reinforce the importance of meaningful and inclusive stakeholder engagement for both the credibility and legitimacy of processes, and for the quality of substantive outcomes. The Ruggie process which led to the UNGPs, drew extensively from a wide range of stakeholder engagement processes covering many different jurisdictions and all UN regional groupings. The importance of deep and inclusive stakeholder engagement is also recognized in the mandate of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights.

The annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights is one of the largest and most vibrant multi-stakeholder events in the UN calendar. Now in its tenth year, the forum provides an opportunity for an annual review by stakeholders – government, business and civil society – of past achievements in implementing the UNGPs and knowledge sharing on ways to address more persistent, underlying challenges.

Its relatively informal approach to agenda setting has, year on year, enabled an increasingly diverse array of stakeholder-organized sessions, supporting a ‘bottom up’ approach which raises awareness of under-reported issues and undervalued solutions.

In addition, while the UNGPs provide the substantive framework for discussion, flexible governance arrangements allow for rapid reorientation to respond to present and emerging crises, such as COVID-19 pandemic and climate change.

However, the sluggish responses of many companies, coupled with revulsion at reports of serious abuses in the value chains of many well-known brands, have prompted some governments to seek ways of translating some aspects of HRDD methodologies into binding legal standards. France passed a Corporate Duty of Vigilance Law in 2017 and Germany adopted a new law on supply chain due diligence in June 2021 which is to enter into effect on 1 January 2023. The European Commission is also working up proposals for an EU-wide regime to be unveiled in mid-2021.

Soft law versus hard law

At the international level, there are signs of divergence between those states which see value in persevering with the soft law route towards better regulation and corporate standards, and those which want to move as rapidly as possible to a hard law framework for business and human rights, enshrined in treaty, to improve domestic-level regulation and access to effective remedies.

Those supporting the hard law route – largely less industrialized states – received a boost in 2016 when the UN Human Rights Council mandated an Intergovernmental Working Group to explore options for a new treaty on business and human rights.

This initiative, known as the ‘treaty process’, has completed six rounds of negotiations. Despite the necessarily greater formality, these treaty negotiation sessions continue to emphasize the importance of stakeholder consultation. NGOs with ECOSOC status are invited to contribute views on the framing and content of draft treaty provisions immediately following the interventions by states, intergovernmental organizations and national human rights institutions, in that order.

The key question is whether this dynamism and inclusivity can be preserved as the transition is made from soft law to more binding approaches. Translating soft law standards into binding regimes inevitably means making hard choices, and different stakeholder groups have different views as to where legal lines should be drawn, how key concepts should be defined, and where the balance between legal certainty and flexibility should be struck.

The negotiations needed to strike an effective balance between competing objectives and needs can be challenging and time-consuming, as experiences with the treaty process have shown. But stakeholder demand for inclusive processes to help shape the law remains strong. Stakeholder groups clearly want a say in how the new EU-wide regime for ‘mandatory human rights due diligence’ will work in practice. A recent online ‘stakeholder survey’ garnered more than 400,000 responses.

Ultimately, the most effective domestic regimes are likely to be a mix of hard law standards supported by more flexible standards and guidance. Civil society organizations and trade unions will continue to have a multi-faceted role to play. Not only are they vital sources of expertise on human rights challenges connected to business activities, at home and abroad, they can also act as private enforcers of standards and advocates for affected people and communities.

Kumaravadivel Guruparan, Research Fellow, International Law Programme
Jennifer Zerk, Associate Fellow, International Law Programme

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