The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission have just released a very impressive report on public procurement and human rights. The report is an important addition to the policy debate on business and human rights and is an affirmation of the long-standing recognition that Governments and other bodies, both public and private, can influence respect for human rights by carefully choosing where and how they spend their money. The United Nations Guiding Principles on business and human rights, for example, call on States to “promote respect for human rights by business enterprises with which they conduct commercial transactions”. The Guiding Principles note that:
States conduct a variety of commercial transactions with business enterprises, not least through their procurement activities. This provides States – individually and collectively – with unique opportunities to promote awareness of and respect for human rights by those enterprises, including through the terms of contracts, with due regard to States’ relevant obligations under national and international law.
The Commission’s report, Public Procurement and Human Rights in Northern Ireland, does not focus solely on States, but is rather aimed at Government departments, other public bodies and private companies. It aims to generate discussion of procurement policy in Northern Ireland, and further consideration of how it can impact on human rights, including improving the enjoyment of rights. Over £11.5 billion is spent each year in Northern Ireland on the acquisition of goods, services and works by the public service.
A detailed description of existing international, European and national laws, policies and standards relating to public procurement and human rights is provided in the report, as well as indications of where Northern Ireland is falling short in this regard. Recommendations are also made regarding the need for sufficient guidance from relevant bodies regarding a human rights compliant approach to procurement. The Northern Ireland Commission notes that the United Kingdom’s national implementation plan for the UN Guiding Principles contains a commitment to review:
… the degree to which the activities of UK State-owned, controlled or supported enterprises, and of State contracting and purchasing of goods and services, are executed with respect for human rights.
Overall, the report notes that much work needs to be done in Northern Ireland on the issue of public procurement and human rights, but it provides numerous valuable recommendations on the way forward. Perhaps the soon-to-be-established Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission might follow their lead, given the insufficient attention that has been paid to ethical procurement in this jurisdiction.