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The end of formal empires in Africa and Asia in the twentieth century, and the onset of the Cold War, inaugurated three worlds.  These worlds were not so much places, as rival projects of world-making, with distinct political, economic and juridical dimensions.  Not often remembered is the fact that the question of the transnational corporation, how it should be conceptualized, and its proper relation to law and state, was a key element of those rival stories. Colonialism is the long backstory to foreign investment.  In this talk, I trace the attempt in the 1970’s by the ‘Group of 77’ states, to assert international legal control over global corporations through the establishment of a United Nations Commission on Transnational Corporations.  Led by Salvador Allende, that effort was at once a response to the large corporations destabilising Chile, the anti-colonial imperialism of US foreign policy, and an attempt to deal more broadly with the economic legacies of formal empire. And yet the battle lines were drawn in ways which upset a comfortable rehearsal of a North-South divide. Anti-colonial struggles, the ‘Cold War’, the invention of Development, and the implementation of a (Marshall) Plan to (re)construct Europe, all played into the generation of rival imaginaries and competing anxieties, producing unexpected commonalities include coalitions across North and South, and instructive alliances of interest between ‘public’ and ‘private’ actors. Ultimately the project did not so much fail, as undergo a tragic inversion, culminating – for now – in the voluntarism of the ‘business and human rights’ paradigm on one hand, and the internationalised protection of foreign investment on the other. But slowing down our study of this moment reveals that much of what was a stake then remains so today, and that other worlds are still possible.


Sundhya Pahuja is Professor of International Law at the Melbourne Law School and Director of the Institute for International law and the Humanities at the University of Melbourne.  Her work centres on the history, theory and political economy of international law.  Her most recent projects are International Law and the Cold War, and International Law and Global Corporations.


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