As business leaders gathered in Davos last week to talk about the future of corporate capitalism, tens of thousands of social activists were meeting in the Brazilian town of Porto Alegre to discuss how to undo their efforts.
While the World Social Forum prides itself on diversity of opinion, delegates appeared agreed on one matter: corporate social responsibility (CSR) falls short of their goal for a just and equitable economic system.

“More and more groups are saying that they’ve tried CSR and found it just doesn’t deliver,” said Daniel Mittler, policy adviser for the campaign group Greenpeace.

Out with CSR then, but what should replace it? On this matter, delegates responded with their more customary myriad of views.

Participants meeting in the bio-recyclable workshop rooms and tents of the World Social Forum, which finishes today, proposed everything from grassroots action and consumer boycotts to the promotion of sustainable economic alternatives, such as local markets and worker cooperatives.

One approach for improving corporate accountability that always guarantees an affirming nod from delegates, however, is the threat of legal action.

The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control is one such example. The convention, which enters into international law on 27 February, bans all cigarette advertising, sponsorship and promotion.

“The framework is a major step forwards towards improving the international regulatory arena for transnational corporations that are profiting at the expense of people’s health,” Bryan Hirsch, a field organiser at the Boston-based group International Corporate Accountability, told Guardian Unlimited.

Well-attended workshops were held during the World Social Forum to discuss how the principles of the framework could be transferred to other sectors.

“There’s language explicitly in the treaty that gives countries the right to prioritise public health over trade agreements. We plan to use the precedent of this global tobacco treaty to focus a collective campaign against food, agribusiness, water and oil companies,” Mr Hirsch argued.

Some activists expressed reluctance to wait so long for similar accountability pacts. The tobacco legislation was six years in the making. Rather than investing their energies in establishing new regulatory systems, they favoured making the most of existing legislation.

The US Alien Torts Claims Act, for example, is put forward as one of the best legislative tools for anti-corporate campaigners. The act allows cases to be brought against American companies for human rights abuses committed outside the US.

Originally established in 1789 to clarify the jurisdiction of district courts, human rights groups only picked up on it as a means of holding international companies to account in the mid-1990s. Only last month, for example, the oil company Unocal announced its decision in principle to settle Alien Tort litigation over its alleged complicity in human rights abuses in Burma.

“This act allows any corporation or bank that has a presence in the United States to be taken to court,” said George Dor of the campaign group Jubilee South Africa.

Dor was attending the Forum to share his experience of launching a class-action under the Alien Torts Claims Act against international companies accused of profiting under the country’s apartheid regime.

The other legislative hook that excites interest in the activist community is the UN human rights norms for business. Due for final consideration by the UN Commission on Human Rights in March, the norms clarify the responsibilities of businesses in respect to international human rights law.

Activists were quick to note that the norms’ implementation guidelines also include recommendations that businesses be subject to periodic monitoring by the UN. Campaign groups are using this clause to pressure UN special rapporteurs to undertake such monitoring exercises of target companies.

“The norms can be used to open up a space for campaign groups to clarify that multinational companies have human rights obligations, and not just states,” Transparency International’s Alessandra Masai told a packed workshop.

Amnesty International cited the use of the norms to pressure the UN to investigate the case of Dow Chemicals in India, where the US company stands accused of multiple abuses ever since a major chemical spill at its Bhopal plant over 20 years ago.

Not all campaign groups support the route of litigation, however. As the charity ActionAid concedes in its new report, Power hungry, taking companies to court presents a number of significant obstacles. Legal action requires considerable investment of time and resources, the cases invariably suffer prolonged delays and claimants often lack legal standing.

Unocal’s decision in respect to Burma, for example, came eight years after the case against them was first filed. The South African apartheid case, meanwhile, was judged inadmissible by a federal court judge last November.

But anti-corporate activists are nothing if not persistent and can be expected to keep pushing hard for corporate liability in the courts.

As ActionAid’s Rucci Tripathi puts it: “If you have one person that commits murder, you have laws against murder. How much evidence do governments want against corporate abuse before they have laws to stop it?”

Ã?? Oliver Balch writes on corporate social responsibility and sustainable development.