Companies are persons, but they are a special kind of person, endowed with supernatural powers – they cannot be killed or imprisoned, they have no conscience that can feel shame or remorse, they have no loved ones for whom they fear. They have, as the saying goes “‘no soul to be damned and no body to be kicked.”. They also have extraordinary capabilities: they can be described as “artificial superintelligences” with superhuman capacity for perceiving and analysing the world around them and capable of deploying enormous resources to pursue goals which no single human could aspire to.
Despite their apparent invulnerability and superhuman powers, companies are increasingly turning to national and transnational courts to claim protection under European human rights law, both under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (the Charter). And these claims are not going unheeded: Companies have been recognised as bearers of a wide range of human rights, both substantive, such as freedom of expression or of association, and procedural, such as the right to a fair trial and not to be subject to the retroactive application of the criminal law. This might seem counter-intuitive: After all, human rights are seen as reflecting urgent moral concerns which apply to all persons by virtue of their humanity, and as an expression of our demand that all human beings be granted equal moral status, and whatever companies may be, they are not human. In addition, human rights, in so demanding that all human beings be granted equal moral status are a condition of democracy. If companies also have human rights, does that mean that they also count in the democratic process in the same way as natural citizens? Are companies ‘European Supercitizens’?
The purpose of this project is twofold. First, it will seek to identify what principles determine whether a company will be considered to have a human right in a particular situation or not, under both EU and ECHR law. Second, it will seek to place those principles within a broader theoretical framework that will enable a deeper critical engagement with the phenomenon of the human rights claims of legal persons in a democratic legal order. This theoretical framework will encompass two interrelated overarching issues a) the role of human rights within a legal order which claims democratic legitimacy, including the place of the individual bearer of human rights within that legal order and b) the relationship between the interests of collective entities, in particular corporate legal persons, and the rights of individual human beings as bearers of human rights.
This project is funded by the Ragnar Söderberg Foundation