Uncovering Economic Complicity: Explaining State-Led Human Rights Abuses in the Corporate Context

Tricia D. Olsen, Laura Bernal-Bermúdez

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Today’s scholarship and policymaking on business and human rights (BHR) urges businesses to better understand their human rights responsibilities and remedy them, when and if abuses do occur. Despite the public discourse about businesses and human rights, the state—as the main duty bearer in international human rights law—plays a fundamental role as the protector and enforcer of human rights obligations. Yet, the existing literature overlooks state involvement as perpetrators of abuse in the corporate context. We develop the term economic complicity to shed light on the state’s role in directly or indirectly abusing human rights within a corporation’s sphere of influence, such as police violence toward nonviolent protesters or granting environmental licenses without adhering to legally required community consultations. We ask: What contributes to the state’s engagement in economic complicity in corporate human rights abuses? We assess hypotheses emergent from the democratic change and development studies literatures with a unique database that includes economic complicity data from Latin America, the Corporations and Human Rights Database (CHRD). This research has important theoretical implications for the business ethics and BHR literatures, as understanding economic complicity highlights the need for business actors to avoid shirking their moral responsibilities to not only ‘do no harm’ but also to protect human rights when they are threatened by the state.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)35-54
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Business Ethics
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2024
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature B.V.


  • Business and human rights
  • Economic complicity
  • Organized labor
  • Political economy
  • State actors
  • Unions


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