Book Review: Hard Choices, Soft Law: Voluntary Standards in Global Trade, Environment And Social Governance

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Reviewed by Benjamin J. Richardson

This extensive collection of essays explores the growing significance of ‘soft law’ in the global governance of environmental, trade and labour issues. The editors, Professors John Kirton and Michael Trebilcock, respectively of the faculties of political science and law at the University of Toronto, suggest that the ‘world has increasingly turned to soft law solutions to the hard choices it confronts’ (p. 4) in managing and integrating the complex environmental, social and economic policy challenges of the global economy. ‘Soft law’ is explained as those norms and standards that ‘rely primarily on the participation and resources of nongovernmental actors in the construction, operation, and implementation of a governance arrangement’ (p. 9). Such norms and standards are not therefore legally enforceable, and in this way differ from ‘hard law’ which typically involves formal, international conventions prepared and implemented by governments. Soft law has evolved largely through voluntary standards, such as those promulgated by multinational corporations (MNCs) or non-government organisations (NGOs). Soft law also arises through the policies and practices of international governmental or quasi-governmental institutions.  Examples of soft law include international corporate labour codes, NGO- or businesssponsored corporate environmental responsibility standards, as well as policies and standards formulated by institutions such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

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