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Corporate respect for human rights: meaning, scope, and the shifting order of discourse

Ken McPhail (Manchester Business School, University of Manchester, Manchester UK and La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia)
Carol A Adams (Durham University Business School, Durham University, Durham, UK)

Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal

ISSN: 0951-3574

Article publication date: 16 May 2016




Drawing on Fairclough (1989, 2005), the purpose of this paper is to explore how respect for human rights is emerging and being operationalized in the discourse of 30 Fortune 500 companies in the mining, pharmaceutical and chemical industries at two key points in the recent evolution of the UN’s business and human rights agenda. Specifically the paper explores the scope of rights for which corporations are accountable and, more specifically, the degree of responsibility a company assumes for enacting these rights.


The authors draw on Fairclough (1992) and Mashaw (2007) in a critical discourse analysis of corporate human rights disclosures of ten companies in each of the chemical, mining and pharmaceutical industries at two points in time coinciding with: first, the publication in 2008 of the Protect, Respect, Remedy policy framework; and second, the endorsement by the UN in 2011, of a set of Guiding Principles designed to implement this framework.


The study finds four grammars of respect and three different scopes of rights within specific corporate accountably disclosures on their responsibility to respect rights. Corporate constructions of human rights are broad: from labour rights, through social and political rights, to the right to health and a clean environment. The corporate discourse is one of promoting, realizing and upholding rights that construct the corporation as an autonomous source of power beyond the state.

Practical implications

The paper contends that the structuring of this emerging discourse is important, not only because the meaning and scope of corporate respect for rights affects the lived experience of some of the most vulnerable in society, but also because it reflects a shifting the relationship between the state, business and society (Muchlinski 2012).


The authors develop a way of conceptualizing business human rights responsibilities and contend that the corporate human rights discourse of respect reflects a significant reconfiguration of political power.



McPhail, K. and Adams, C.A. (2016), "Corporate respect for human rights: meaning, scope, and the shifting order of discourse", Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, Vol. 29 No. 4, pp. 650-678.



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