Public Procurement and Human Rights: A Survey of Twenty Jurisdictions

19 July 2016

Authors: Claire Methven O’Brien, Amol Mehra, and Nicole Vander Meulen

Contributors: Marta Andrecka, Olga Martin-Ortega, and Robert Stumberg

Public procurement – the purchase by the public sector of the goods and services it needs to carry out its functions – is a major component of the overall global economy, accounting for €1000 billion per year and on average 12% of GDP in OECD countries.

Human rights standards to which governments have signed up, such as the widely-supported UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, oblige public buyers to ensure respect for human rights in their supply chains.  At the same time, the recently-adopted 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda highlight the role of government procurement as part of the transition to sustainable production and consumption.

Yet, over recent years governments have been increasingly implicated in human rights abuses spanning sectors including electronics and ICT, apparel, healthcare, infrastructure and agriculture via their supply chains. Such abuses represent a failure of governments to meet their “duty to protect” human rights, but also a lost opportunity to leverage government contracting to encourage the uptake of sustainable business practices in the private sector, and to achieve “policy coherence” with other development policy goals.

The first major study of public procurement and human rights – the inaugural report of the Learning Lab on Public Procurement and Human Rights – includes:

  • An overview of key standards, issues, and policy or practitioner initiatives concerning the interface between public procurement and human rights
  • Key findings from a 20-jurisdiction survey of law, policy, and practice on public procurement and human rights conducted in collaboration with local partners
  • Recommendations on measures needed to bring public procurement into alignment with human rights and sustainable development.

Amongst the report’s specific conclusions:

  • There is an urgent need for dedicated efforts by government to achieve policy coherence between public procurement laws, policies, and practices, on one hand, and on the other government responsibilities to avoid human rights abuses, as highlighted by the UN Guiding Principles, and other government-supported standards such as the OECD Guidelines for MNEs, G7 efforts on “responsible global value chains,” the ILO Decent Work Agenda and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development
  • Clear legal requirements and policies at international and national levels on the responsibilities of public bodies in connection with purchasing activities are currently lacking – while existing laws may have a ‘chilling effect’ on human rights and sustainability efforts in some jurisdictions
  • Existing public procurement standards generally fail to refer to state responsibilities to avoid human rights abuses – in the small number of instances where they do, they single out specific issues specific issues such as child labour rather than the broader spectrum of possible abuses
  • Monitoring of conditions in government supply chains is an extremely rare occurrence
  • Access to remedy for victims of human rights abuses in government supply chains are lacking
  • There is a clear need for guidance and training for public buyers on techniques and tools that they can lawfully deploy to avoid or reduce the incidence of human rights abuses in government supply chains
  • New actions on public procurement and human rights must build on and capture synergies with existing sustainable, green, ethical, or social public procurement initiatives.

This report should be read by: public sector professionals with a procurement, sustainability, human rights or international development mandate across central or local government; private sector procurement, sustainability and human rights professionals; civil society organisations; NHRIs and media.

The report is available below and can be downloaded here.