Human rights and public procurement of goods and services

Claire Methven O'Brien, Olga Martin-Ortega

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


As mega-consumers of manufactured products, works and services, central and municipal governments and other public bodies can influence, through procurement, the terms of trade and corporate conduct across sectors and through global value chains. Public procurement thus has potential to impact positively on human rights locally and transnationally. At the same time the ‘state duty to protect’ under Pillar I of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) calls for states to fulfil their human rights obligations as an economic actor, including in public procurement. Yet to date little attention has been paid to the interface between government purchasing and human rights by scholars. This chapter contributes to addressing this gap. First it outlines international legal frameworks regulating public procurement and discusses the extent to which these may permit, or restrict, measures to respect, protect and promote human rights by public buyers or their suppliers. Next it analyses obligations of states and public authorities under international human rights treaties and relevant soft law standards, in relation to their purchasing activities, in two scenarios, concerning respectively human rights abuses linked to public procurement that occur inside, and beyond, a state’s territorial jurisdiction. Drawing examples from across jurisdictions, the chapter then shows how integrating human rights into public buying can impact positively on human rights of supply chain workers while also being financially and practically viable for purchasing institutions. In concluding, the chapter reflects on the complementary roles of public buying and other mechanisms for improving human rights across value chains. Finally, it identifies priorities for a future policy agenda and issues for further research.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationResearch Handbook on Human Rights and Business
EditorsSurya Deva, David Birchall
PublisherEdward Elgar Publishing
Number of pages23
ISBN (Electronic)9781786436405
ISBN (Print)9781786436399
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • Business and human rights
  • UNGPs
  • public procurement
  • international human rights law
  • EU human rights law
  • human rights
  • modern slavery


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