Extraterritorial Human Rights Obligations

Tessa Khan

Despite the universality of human rights, many governments interpret their human rights obligations as applicable only within their own borders. This is contrary to international law, which makes clear that governments are responsible for fulfilling their human rights obligations wherever they act if their actions (or lack of action) can be predicted to affect the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights1. The importance of governments complying with their extraterritorial obligations has become particularly urgent in an era of economic globalisation, when State and non-State actors exert considerable influence on the realisation of economic, social and cultural rights across the world through trade, finance, taxation, and environmental policies.

In Southeast Asia, the impending creation of the ASEAN Economic Community will serve to further integrate trade and investment activity between countries. In Asia and the Pacific more generally, aside from the human rights implications of new bilateral and multilateral trade agreements, transnational corporations (TNCs) continue to be associated with the displacement and militarisation of communities, the destruction and degradation of natural resources, and a host of other human rights violations. Further, as governments around the world contemplate a new development agenda that will come into effect after 2015, the basic principles at the heart of foreign aid and development cooperation are being called into question.

In many cases, ETOs are the key to resolving these disputes. For example, as a result of a government’s extraterritorial obligations, the “home State” of a TNC, i.e. the country where the TNC is registered or does most of its business, is likely to be responsible for the actions of that TNC in other countries, including human rights abuses that company commits. As a result of their extraterritorial obligations, governments are also required to ensure that trade, investment, finance and development cooperation agreements do not undermine the fulfillment of human rights anywhere. Even when governments act as a member of an international organisation, they must take all reasonable steps to ensure that that organisation does not violate that government’s human rights obligations. ETOs are therefore a powerful tool for holding the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and other international organisations accountable for human rights violations. Finally, the extraterritorial obligations of governments require that governments that are in a position to do so must provide international assistance to contribute to the fulfilment of human rights in other countries. This reflects the principle of international solidarity that was first articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and which must underpin the global partnership for development that is currently under discussion in the UN.

APWLD has engaged in a number of recent activities to strengthen the discourse around ETOs in the region and around the world. In addition to co-convening a public conference on ETOs at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok in early September, which was attended by a number of APWLD members, it also hosted a Roundtable on Extraterritorial Human Rights Obligations, which produced the Bangkok Declaration on Extraterritorial Human Rights Obligations.


1 –The 2011 Maastricht Principles on Extraterritorial Obligations of States in the Areas of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights clarify the parameters of extraterritorial obligations of States and confirm the primacy of human rights among competing sources of international law.

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