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A Mountain Biker cannot start a journey in sixth gear: An Assessment of the U.N. Global Compact’s Use of Soft Law as a Global Governance Structure for Corporate Social Responsibility

Ghafele, Roya and Mercer, Angus (2011): A Mountain Biker cannot start a journey in sixth gear: An Assessment of the U.N. Global Compact’s Use of Soft Law as a Global Governance Structure for Corporate Social Responsibility. Published in: U.C. Davis Journal of International Law & Practice , Vol. 17, No. 1 (June 2011): pp. 48-59.

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Abstract

The practical impossibility of employing hard law at an international level has meant that softer codes of conduct have stepped in to fill the void. The Global Compact is the most ambitious of these codes, created with a desire to engage business in the project of international development and thus develop a global governance structure for corporate social responsibility.

Soft law instruments, such as voluntary standards and framework agreements have been roundly criticised for being vague and indistinct and creating commitments that may be subjective, tentative and conditional. However, what appears to be lacking in the existing literature is a critical analysis of the governance structures created by a voluntary regulatory instrument like the Global Compact using a framework capable of both assessing the initiative’s merits and weaknesses, and tracing its development. Through examining the use of soft law by the Global Compact, we argue that although many question or dismiss its non-binding approach, it provides an illustrative example of the benefits of soft law over harder forms of legislation.

One of the most important lessons to take from the case study is that the use of soft law as a global governance structure of corporate social responsibility should not be dismissed as a ‘Plan B’ in the event that harder law is not practical. Corporate social responsibility is a relatively recent phenomenon; clear benefits exist in starting an international regulatory mechanism at the softer end of the legalization spectrum, before toughening up later on.

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