Artificial Intelligence and Human Rights Due Diligence – Part 1. Integrating AI into the HRDD process - By Samuel Brobby

Editor's note: Samuel Brobby graduated from Maastricht University's Globalisation and Law LLM specialising in Human Rights in September 2020. A special interest in HRDD carries his research through various topics such as: the intersection between AI and HRDD, the French Devoir de Vigilance or mHRDD at the EU level. Since April 2021 he has joined the Asser Institute as a research intern for the Doing Business Right project.

The recent surge in developments and debate surrounding Artificial Intelligence (AI) have been business centric, naturally so. The conversation has long been centred on the possible gains “digitally conscious” companies can recoup from their sizeable investments in the various forms this technology can take. The ink continues to flow as numerous articles are released daily; debating between the ultimate power of artificial intelligence (and topical subsets like machine learning) on the one hand, versus the comparatively more philistinish views regarding what these technologies can offer on the other. Our objective here is not to pick a side on the AI debate. Rather, we would like to explore the Business & Human Rights implications of the development of AI and, in particular its intersection with the human rights due diligence (HRDD) processes enshrined in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and subsequent declinations. How compatible is AI with HRDD obligations? Where does AI fit into the HRDD process? Can AI be used as a tool to further HRDD obligations? Can the HRDD process, in return, have an effect on the elaboration and progress of AI and its use in transnational business? And, to which extent will the roll out of AI be affected by HRDD obligations? These are all questions we hope to tackle in this blog.

In short, it seems two distinct shifts are occurring, rather opportunely, in close time frames. The impending mass adoption of AI in transnational business will have strong consequences for the state of Human Rights. This adoption is not only substantiated by an uptick of AI in business, but also in policy documents produced or endorsed by leading institutions such as the ILO or the OECD for instance. Inversely, we must consider that HRDD obligations elaborated by the BHR community will also have strong implications for the development and roll out of AI. These two transformations will interact increasingly as their positions are consolidated. It is these interactions that we wish to analyse in the two parts of this article. Namely, the emergence of Artificial intelligence as a tool to shape and further HRDD obligations (1) and the emergence of HRDD as a process to shape the development of AI (2). More...

Corporate (Ir)Responsibility Made in Germany - Part III: The Referentenentwurf: A Compromise à la Merkel - By Mercedes Hering

Editor’s Note: Mercedes is a recent graduate of the LL.B. dual-degree programme English and German Law, which is taught jointly by University College London (UCL) and the University of Cologne. She will sit the German state exam in early 2022. In September 2020, she joined the Asser Institute as a research intern for the Doing Business Right project.


I. What happened so far

It took Ministers Heil (Labour, SPD), Müller (Development, CSU) and Altmaier (Economy, CDU) 18 months to agree on a draft for the Lieferkettengesetz (Supply Chain Law) to be presented soon to the German Bundestag for legislative debates. For an overview of the different proposals put forward by the Ministries and NGOs, and political discussion surrounding them, please check my previous blogs, which you can find here and here. You can also watch the panel discussion on the Lieferkettengesetz that we organized in November 2020 with Cornelia Heydenreich (Germanwatch), Miriam Saage-Maaß (European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights), and Christopher Patz (European Coalition for Corporate Justice).

On 15 February 2021 the government’s “final” draft was published – the so-called “Referentenentwurf”. This initial agreement was met with relief from all parties involved, as it was preceded by a long-lasting deadlock. At first, Minister for Economic Affairs, Peter Altmaier, blocked Cabinet meetings so that the government position paper (“Eckpunkteplan”) published by Ministers Heil and Müller could not be discussed. Afterwards, Altmaier again blocked a compromise proposal brought forward by Müller and Heil in Cabinet. The matter went up to the “Koalitionsausschuss”, the committee that negotiates if members of the coalition parties cannot reach an agreement. This committee failed to come to an agreement. The issue of civil liability and the scope of application were the most controversial points. Thereafter, the matter reached the “Chefetage”, Angela Merkel. She sat down with the three ministers involved and Olaf Scholz, Vice-Chancellor and Minister for Finance (SPD), and tried to mediate between the different positions. The group met twice before, eventually, an agreement was reached resulting in the Referentenentwurf of 15 February 2021. The agreement did not last for long. Peter Altmaier withdrew (again) his support for the draft just after it had been circulated.

On 28 March 2021, another “final” draft was published. Those two drafts differ in subtle but impactful aspects. This blog post was originally based on the first draft; its text has been amended to integrate the changes introduced in the second draft. The second Referentenentwurf is the one signed off by Cabinet on 3 March 2021. In this blog, I will first summarize the main points of the draft(s), and afterwards review the various critical points raised against it.More...

New Event! Corporate (ir)responsibility made in Germany - 27 November - 3pm (CET)

On 27 November, we will host a digital discussion on Germany’s approach to corporate (ir)responsibility for human rights violations and environmental harms in the supply chains of German businesses. This event aims to analyse the evolution of the business and human rights policy discussion in Germany and its influence on the wider European debates on mandatory human rights due diligence EU legislation. Germany is the EU’s economic powerhouse and a trading giant, hence its position on the (ir)responsibility of corporations for human rights risks and harms throughout their supply chains has major consequences for the EU and beyond.


Currently, Germany is debating the adoption of a supply chain law or Lieferkettengesetz. This would mark the end of a long political and legal struggle, which started in 2016, when the German government adopted its National Action Plan (NAP) 2016-2020. Germany’s NAP, like many others, counted on voluntary commitments from businesses to implement human rights and environmental due diligence throughout their supply chains. Unlike other NAP’s, the German one also included a monitoring process, which tracked the progress businesses made during that four-year period.

The final report, which was published in September, showed that only roughly 13-17% of German businesses implemented the voluntary due diligence measures encouraged in the NAP. On the basis of these rather disappointing results, as required by the coalition agreement between the two governing parties, a draft for a Lieferkettengesetz should have been presented to the Cabinet this autumn. However, the Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, backed by business lobby groups, strongly opposes any form of civil liability for human rights violations committed within supply chains and managed until now to delay the process.

Our discussion aims to review these developments and highlight the key drivers behind the (slow) movement towards a Lieferkettengesetz. Weaving political insights with legal know-how, our speakers will provide a comprehensive overview (in English) on Germany’s positioning in the business and human rights discussion and its potential influence on the future trajectory of a European legislation.



To register for this event, please click here. You will receive a link before the start of the event.

For enquiries, contact

Winter academy: Due diligence as a master key to responsible business conduct

On 25-29 January 2021, The Asser Institute’s ‘Doing business right’ project is organising an online winter academy on ‘Doing business right: Due diligence as a master key to responsible business conduct’.

This academy brings together students, academics and professionals from around the world and provides a deep dive into the due diligence process as a strategy to achieve responsible business conduct.

Learn more and register here. 

The EU Parliament’s proposal for a Regulation on Forest and Ecosystem Risk Commodities - Tackling global deforestation though due diligence - By Enrico Partiti

Editor's note: Enrico Partiti is Assistant Professor of Transnational Regulation and Governance at Tilburg University and Associate Fellow at the Asser Institute. His expertise centres on European and international economic law, sustainability and supply chain regulation. In particular, he studies how private standard-setters and corporations regulate globally sustainability and human rights 

Upcoming Event: Fighting global deforestation through due diligence: towards an EU regulation on forest and ecosystem risk commodities? - 4 November 2020 - 16:00 (CET) - Register Here!

The recent vote in the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) Committee of the European Parliament on binding legislation to stop EU-driven global deforestation is a watershed moment in the global fight against deforestation, ecosystem conversion and associated human rights violations. The ENVI Committee report, that will soon be voted by the plenary, requests the Commission (as provided in Art. 225 TFEU) to table a legislative proposal for a measure disciplining the placing on the EU market of products associated to forest and ecosystem conversion and degradation, as well as violations of indigenous communities’ human rights. The Parliament’s initiative takes place in a policy context increasingly concerned with deforestation, in the framework of a Commission Communication on stepping up EU action to protect and restore the world’s forests which left a door open for legislative intervention. 

The proposed measure would aim to severe the economic link between demand of agricultural commodities, especially by large consumers markets, and negative environmental impacts - including on climate change. Beef, soy and palm oil alone are responsible for 80% of tropical deforestation, and consequent CO2 emissions. In 2014, EU demand was responsible for 41% of global imports of beef, 25% of palm oil and 15% of soy, as well as large shares of other commodities at high risk for forests and ecosystems such as such as maize (30%), cocoa (80%), coffee (60%), and rubber (25%). Protecting just forests is not sufficient, as it risks to displace conversion to other non-forests ecosystems such as the Brazilian cerrado. In light of their negative impact on both forests and other natural ecosystems, such commodities have been labeled as forest and ecosystem risks commodities (FERCs). More...

New Event! Fighting global deforestation through due diligence: towards an EU regulation on forest and ecosystem risk commodities? - 4 November 2020 - 16:00 (CET)

Between 2010 and 2015, 7.6 million hectares of forests were lost every year. Deforestation not only causes immense biodiversity loss, but it also has extremely negative repercussions on climate change. Hence, deforestation is one of the world’s most pressing global challenges. 

This online event will discuss the EU Parliament’s new initiative to tackle deforestation. It will examine the initiative’s substance, possible implications for fighting deforestation across the globe, and possible means for enforcement and their challenges, as well as its impact on EU obligations under international (trade) law.


Research has shown that agricultural production is a major driver of deforestation. The majority of global tree cover loss between 2000 and 2015 was caused by agricultural production, and another quarter was due to forestry activities. Furthermore, a large proportion of forest clearance occurs in breach of local legal and administrative requirements. However, only half of the total tropical deforestation between 2000 and 2012 was caused by illegal conversion. Weak enforcement of forest laws in certain countries further compounds the problem of relying on legality as a meaningful threshold to stop conversion for agricultural purposes, especially where political leaders wilfully reduce law enforcement and conservation efforts to favour agribusiness. 

To tackle these closely intertwined concerns, the EU is in the process of enhancing its policies on global deforestation linked to EU imports. In addition to the existent Timber Regulation, assessing the legality of timber origin, and the Renewable Energy Directive, establishing sustainability requirements for biofuel crops, the EU is considering several regulatory and non-regulatory interventions. Among the most profound measures, the EU Parliament is about to approve a ground-breaking Resolution that will require the Commission to propose an EU Regulation ensuring that only agricultural commodities and derived products that are not linked to deforestation, ecosystem conversion and associated human rights violations are marketed in the EU. Building on the Timber Regulation and human rights due diligence responsibilities as prescribed in the United Nation Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the proposal would require economic operators to implement the obligation via non-financial due diligence ensuring that products do not originate from converted forests and ecosystems, regardless of the legality of land-use conversion.


  • Delara Burkhardt, European Parliament’s Rapporteur for a Motion for an EU Parliament Resolution with recommendations to the Commission on an EU legal framework to halt and reverse EU-driven global deforestation (her draft report is available here).

  • Andrea Carta, Senior legal strategist at Greenpeace, EU Unit

  • Enrico Partiti, Assistant professor in transnational regulation and governance, Tilburg University

  • Meriam Wortel, Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority

The discussion will be moderated by Antoine Duval, Senior researcher at the Asser Institute and coordinator of the ‘Doing business right’ project. 

Click here to register for this online discussion.

Corporate (Ir)Responsibility Made in Germany - Part II: The Unfinished Saga of the Lieferkettengesetz - By Mercedes Hering

Editor's note: Mercedes is a recent graduate of the LL.B. dual-degree programme English and German Law, which is taught jointly by University College London (UCL) and the University of Cologne. She will sit the German state exam in early 2022. Alongside her studies, she is working as student research assistant at the Institute for International and Foreign Private Law in Cologne. Since September 2020, she joined the Asser Institute as a research intern for the Doing Business Right project.

In Part II of this blog series, I intend to outline the different proposals for a Lieferkettengesetz. First, the Initiative Lieferkettengesetz’s model law, secondly the proposal submitted by the Ministry for Labour and Social Affairs and the Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, and lastly, I will present the amendments pushed by the business sector and the Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy.More...

Corporate (Ir)responsibility made in Germany - Part I: The National (In)Action Plan 2016-2020 - By Mercedes Hering

Editor's note: Mercedes is a recent graduate of the LL.B. dual-degree programme English and German Law, which is taught jointly by University College London (UCL) and the University of Cologne. She will sit the German state exam in early 2022. Alongside her studies, she is working as student research assistant at the Institute for International and Foreign Private Law in Cologne. Since September 2020, she joined the Asser Institute as a research intern for the Doing Business Right project.

On the international stage, Germany presents itself as a champion for human rights and the environment. However, as this blog will show, when it comes to holding its own corporations accountable for human rights violations and environmental damage occurring within their global supply chains, it shows quite a different face.

In recent years, German companies were linked to various human rights scandals. The German public debate on corporate accountability kickstarted in earnest in September 2012, when a factory in Karachi, Pakistan, burned down killing almost 300 people. The factory had supplied KiK, Germany’s largest discount textile retailer with cheap garments. Then, over a year and a half ago, a dam broke in Brazil, killing 257 people. The dam had previously been certified to be safe by TÜV Süd Brazil, a subsidiary of TÜV Süd, a German company offering auditing and certification services. There are many more examples of incidents in which German companies were involved in human rights violations occurring within their supply chains, yet eight years after the factory in Pakistan burned down, and nine years after the unanimous endorsement of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights by the UN Human Rights Council, there is still no binding German legislation imposing some type of liability onto companies that knowingly, or at least negligently, fail to uphold human and labor rights in their supply chain.

This is despite the fact that Germany, the third-largest importer worldwide, with its economic power and negotiation strength on the international stage, could have a dramatic impact on business practices if it were to embrace a stronger approach to business and human rights.  

In the coming two blogs I am to take a critical look at Germany’s recent policies related to corporate accountability and discuss the current developments (and roadblocks) linked to the potential adoption of a Lieferkettengesetz (Supply Chain Law). In this first post, I focus on the effects of the National Action Plan 2016-2020, building on recently released interim reports. In my second blog, I will then turn to the various proposals and political discussions for mandatory due diligence regulation (Lieferkettengesetz).More...

New Event! Between National Law(s) and the Binding Treaty: Recent Developments in Business and Human Rights Regulation - 14 November

This event co-organised with FIDH and SOMO aims to provide a detailed overview of the latest developments in the field of BHR regulation. The first part of the afternoon will be dedicated to a comparative review of some national developments in BHR regulation. The speakers have been asked to focus their presentations (max 10 minutes) on outlining the recent (and sometimes future) changes in the various regulatory models introduced by specific European states. They will also discuss the (expected) effects of the different regulatory models based on comparative analyses and empirical data gathered so far.

The second part of the afternoon will then focus on discussing the latest draft of the proposed binding treaty on BHR. The speakers have been asked to prepare short presentations (max 10 minutes) on the strengths and weaknesses of the current draft (with an eye on the changes introduced with regard to the Zero draft). The presentations will be followed by open exchanges with the participants on the various points raised (including concrete proposals for improvement).

Where: Asser Institute in The Hague

When: 14 November from 13:00

Draft programme: 

13:00 – 13:15 Welcome

13:15 – 15:00 - BHR regulation: Recent Developments in Europe – Chair Maddalena Neglia (FIDH)

  • Nadia Bernaz (Wageningen University) – Recent developments in the UK
  • Anna Beckers (Maastricht University) – Recent developments in Germany
  • Antoine Duval (Asser Institute) – Recent developments in France
  • Lucas Roorda (Utrecht University/College voor de Rechten van de Mens) – Recent developments in the Netherlands
  • Irene Pietropaoli (British Institute of International and Comparative Law) – Recent developments in BHR regulation: A comparative perspective

15:00 – 15:15 Coffee Break 

15:15 – 17:00 – Revised Draft of the Binding BHR Treaty: Strengths and weaknesses – Chair Mariëtte van Huijstee (SOMO)

  • Nadia Bernaz (Wageningen University)
  • Anna Beckers (Maastricht University)
  • Antoine Duval (Asser Institute)
  • Irene Pietropaoli (British Institute of International and Comparative Law)
  • Lucas Roorda (Utrecht University/ College voor de Rechten van de Mens)

17:00 -  Closing Reception.

This event is organised with the support of:

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Doing Business Right – Monthly Report – May & June 2019 - By Shamistha Selvaratnam & Maisie Biggs

Doing Business Right – Monthly Report – May & June 2019


Editor’s note: Shamistha Selvaratnam is a LLM Candidate of the Advanced Masters of European and International Human Rights Law at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Prior to commencing the LLM, she worked as a business and human rights solicitor in Australia where she specialised in promoting business respect for human rights through engagement with policy, law and practice. Maisie Biggs graduated with a MSc in Global Crime, Justice and Security from the University of Edinburgh and holds a LLB from University College London. She is currently working with the Asser Institute in The Hague. She has previously worked for International Justice Mission in South Asia and the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) in Amsterdam.



This report compiles all relevant news, events and materials on Doing Business Right based on the coverage provided on our twitter feed @DoinBizRight and on various websites. You are invited to contribute to this compilation via the comments section below, feel free to add links to important cases, documents and articles we may have overlooked.


The Headlines

Dutch Court allows Case against Shell to Proceed

On 1 May the Hague District Court rules that it has jurisdiction to hear a suit brought against the Royal Dutch Shell by four Nigerian widows. The widows are still seeking redress for the killing of their husbands in 1995 in Nigeria. They claim the defendants are accomplices in the execution of their husbands by the Abasha regime. Allegedly, Shell and related companies provided material support, which led to the arrests and deaths of the activists. Although Shell denies wrongdoing in this case, the Court has allowed the suit to proceed. The judgment is accessible in Dutch here. An English translation is yet to be provided.

The Netherlands Adopts Child Labour Due Diligence Law

On 14 May the Dutch Government passed legislation requiring certain companies to carry out due diligence related to child labour in their supply chains. The law applies to companies that are either registered in the Netherlands that sell or deliver goods or services to Dutch consumers or that are registered overseas but sell or deliver goods or services to Dutch consumers. These companies will have to submit a statement declaring that they have due diligence procedures in place to prevent child labour from being used in the production of their goods or services.

While it is not yet clear when the law will come into force, it is unlikely to do so before 1 January 2020. The Dutch law is part of the growing movement to embed human rights due diligence into national legislative frameworks. The law is accessible in Dutch here.

First case under the French Due Diligence law initiated against Total

French NGOs Amis de la Terre FR and Survie have initiated civil proceedings against French energy company Total for the planned Tilenga mining project in Uganda. These organisations and CRED, Friends of the Earth Uganda and NAVODA have sent a formal notice to Total in relation to concerns over the potential expropriation of people in proximity to the site of the Tilenga project and threats to the environment. Information on the case from the initiating civil society organisations can be found here. This is the first initiated case under the new French Due Diligence law, and may act as a test case for future litigation.

In a similar vein, civil society organisations CCFD-Terre Solidaire and Sherpa have launched Le Radar du Devoir de Vigilance [The Vigilance Duty Radar], a resource to track the compliance of French companies to the law. The site lists potentially subjected companies, and their published vigilance plans (or lack thereof).

Bolstering the UK Modern Slavery Act

During a speech at the International Labour Organisation’s centenary conference on 11 June 2019, Theresa May outlined the UK Government’s further commitments to strengthen the Modern Slavery Act 2015; these included a central public registry of modern slavery transparency statements by businesses (in a similar vein to the Gender Pay Gap Service), and the extension of reporting requirements to the public sector. Individual ministerial departments will be obliged to publish modern slavery statements from 2021, while central Government has committed to publish voluntarily this year. The focus on public sector procurement will apparently also include a “new programme that will improve responsible recruitment in parts of our public sector supply chains that pass through Asia.”

The Final Report of the Independent Review of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 was released in May, and considered in Westminster Hall on 19th June. More...

The Rise of Human Rights Due Diligence (Part V): Does it Foster Respect for Human Rights by Business?

Editor’s note: Shamistha Selvaratnam is a LLM Candidate of the Advanced Masters of European and International Human Rights Law at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Prior to commencing the LLM, she worked as a business and human rights solicitor in Australia where she specialised in promoting business respect for human rights through engagement with policy, law and practice.


Human rights due diligence (HRDD) has emerged as a dominant paradigm for doing business with respect for human rights. It is a central concept to the UNGPs and describes what ‘steps a company must take to become aware of, prevent and address adverse human rights impacts’ in order to discharge the responsibility to respect.[1] The case studies examining Adidas’ and Unilever’s HRDD practices (the Case Studies) have demonstrated how businesses are working with the concept of HRDD and translating it into practice. They provide an opportunity to consider the adaptable nature of HRDD and whether it has the potential to transform business internal frameworks in order to generate greater corporate respect for human rights. This will be reflected on in this final blog of our series of articles dedicated to HRDD. It will also reflect on the role that hard law initiatives play in incentivising substantive human rights compliance by business (in addition to soft law initiatives such as the UNGPs).


The Adaptable Nature of HRDD

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach that can be taken by businesses when implementing HRDD. Although the elements and parameters of HRDD are defined in the UNGPs (discussed in detail in a previous blog in this series), it is, by its very nature, an open-ended concept that has been ‘articulated at a certain level of abstraction’. Indeed, this level of abstraction was arguably intentional given the use of the term ‘due’ in HRDD, which ‘implies variation of effort and resources necessary to address effectively adverse impacts in a particular context’.[2]

The flexibility built into the concept of HRDD acknowledges that there are more than ‘80,000 multinational corporations, ten times as many subsidiaries and countless national firms’ globally that differ in many respects.[3] Accordingly, the shape of HRDD within one business cannot be the same as that of another business – it should be ‘determined by the context in which a company is operating, its activities, and the relationships associated with those activities’.[4] As Ruggie acknowledged in 2010, his aim was to ‘provide companies with universally applicable guiding principles for … conducting due diligence’, rather than prescriptive guidance. Therefore, the ‘complexity of tools and the magnitude of processes’ employed by businesses will vary depending on the circumstances. As such, businesses can exercise a great deal of discretion as to how to translate HRDD into practice.

However, this adaptable nature of HRDD has been critiqued for lacking clarity, embodying a ‘high degree of fragility and flexibility’ and for containing an ‘inbuilt looseness’.[5] These complexities arise due to the absence of ‘sufficient specificity of expected action’.[6] Bijlmakers argues that the ‘ambiguity and openness’ of HRDD can ‘lead to uncertainty about what conduct is required from companies for the effective implementation of their responsibilities’.[7] This can result in a lack of compliance by businesses or differing levels of compliance, which ultimately means that HRDD ‘may or may not achieve the desired outcome – i.e. non-violation of human rights – in all cases’.[8] Indeed from the Case Studies it is clear that despite the extensive efforts made by Adidas and Unilever to put HRDD into practice, there are still gaps between the paper-based processes and practices of both businesses, e.g. there are human rights abuses present within their supply chains that are not being identified by their current HRDD practices and therefore not being addressed. Mares also argues that the looseness surrounding HRDD as a concept can also result in ineffective implementation, whereby businesses take action that is ‘largely symbolic, generates limited improvements, and fails to address underlying issues’.[9] As a result, businesses are not addressing the root causes of human rights issues within their business, but rather ‘applying bandaids to symptoms’. [10]

The flexibility of HRDD as a concept also allows businesses to employ various tools and processes in order to ‘create plausible deniability’, instead of discovering and understanding issues within their supply chains and how they should be managed.[11] Through conducting on the ground research at the local level, Bartley demonstrates that businesses appear to be using these tools and processes in order to ‘collect just enough information to produce assurances of due diligence’, allowing human rights issues and impacts to be kept out of sight.[12] Accordingly, their is a risk that businesses take advantage of the open-ended nature of HRDD by implementing HRDD processes as window-dressing to give the impression that they are engaging with the human rights risks and impacts in the context of their business, when in fact they are not.

However, despite these critiques the Case Studies demonstrate that the adaptable nature of HRDD has proven to be transformative on businesses. Embracing HRDD has led Adidas and Unilever to transform their operations to fit the different phases of the HRDD process. In doing so, they have avoided using a cookie-cutter approach that does not account for the differences between the businesses and they way they operate.

The use of customised HRDD approaches is of particular importance given that the salient human rights risks and impacts identified by a business will always differ in some respects to those of another business. With respect to Adidas and Unilever, despite having some overlapping identified risks (e.g. discrimination, working hours, freedom of association and fair wages), both businesses also focus on a number of specific salient risks, which are determined using various factors including the assessed risks of the countries in which they operate. On one hand, land rights are a particular focus for Unilever given the negative impacts it can have on individual’s and communities’ land tenure rights, particularly through its suppliers. On the other hand, child labour is more of a salient risk for Adidas given the pressure on brands in the apparel sector to produce garments at low costs in a quick time frame. In light of this, the HRDD processes followed by each business after identifying these risk areas are different such that the actions taken to integrate and address risks and impacts are directly responsive to those risks.


Is HRDD Effective to Foster Corporate Respect of Human Rights? 

The Case Studies also demonstrate that HRDD is not solely a paper tiger. Businesses that truly engage with the HRDD process can indeed transform internal processes, enhancing corporate attention on human rights. Both Adidas and Unilever have not sought to use HRDD as a buzzword with no institutional consequences. Instead they have introduced concrete mechanisms aimed at preventing human rights impacts from arising within their business context. 

So how has HRDD had a transformative impact on Adidas and Unilever? As I have shown in the Case Studies, it has provided a framework for embedding institutional and regulatory changes geared towards the prevention of adverse human rights impacts. On paper, they have translated the cycle of HRDD into a maze of internal procedures involving different stages of their activities as well as different corporate entities integrated in their supply chains. Moreover, they have built-up enforcement mechanisms in an attempt to trigger change if a potential human rights risk is identified. In short, the transformative impact of HRDD on the structure and operations of the two corporations is clear, whether this impact is effective to tackle human rights violations in their supply chains is another matter. The Case Studies conducted cannot evidence effectiveness, as it would require much more time-consuming and expensive on-field studies to observe whether the compliance of, for example, the working conditions of Adidas’ or Unilever’s suppliers with core labour rights improves thanks to these changes.    

It is certain that neither Adidas nor Unilever have a perfect HRDD process in place – gaps and blindspots will always exist which allow serious human rights issues to continue to emerge in their supply chains. Nonetheless, as evidenced above, it is also true that embracing HRDD had a transformative impact in the way these businesses operate. Whether these transformations are correlated with a decrease in human rights violations across their supply chains is a fundamental question that cannot be answered by my research, even though it will be at the centre of future assessments of the practical effects of HRDD on human rights throughout supply chains.    


The Catalyst Role of Hard Law Initiatives

Soft law HRDD initiatives such as the UNGPs and the OECD Guidelines have been primarily relied upon to date in order to regulate corporate human rights behaviour. Over the past years, however, several countries have either adopted or started to consider adopting legislation that embeds HRDD into their legal framework. For example:

  • The UK and Australia have both adopted legislation requiring specific businesses to report on their HRDD processes and efforts in their operations and supply chains in relation to modern slavery.
  • The Netherlands has adopted legislation that requires specific companies to undertake HRDD related to child labour in their supply chains.
  • France has taken a broader approach, rather than focusing on thematic issues, and adopted legislation that requires certain businesses to undertake HRDD to identify and prevent serious violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, health and safety as well as the environment.
  • Further, the Human Rights Council’s Open-Ended Intergovernmental Working Group on Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with Respect to Human Rights is in the process of developing a binding business and human rights treaty. The current draft of the treaty includes a HRDD article requiring state parties to ensure that their domestic legislation requires all businesses to which the treaty applies to undertake HRDD throughout their business activities.[13]

The rapid rise of such hard law initiatives imposing HRDD across the board means that transformation observed in the context of Unilever and Adidas will spread to many more businesses in the coming years. The turn to binding HRDD might be a response to the lack of willingness of businesses to embrace HRDD voluntarily. This is particularly the case in light of the dire landscape highlighted by benchmarking initiatives. For example, the results of the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark demonstrates that 40% of the companies ranked scored no points at all in relation to the systems they have in place to ensure that due diligence processes are implemented.

Hard law that complements the business and human rights soft law already in existence might create the ‘compliance pull’ that is needed to ensure that businesses undertake HRDD by legally mandating that they engage in the process. Further, it can clarify and create greater certainty as to the expectations on business with respect to HRDD, as well as incentivise meaningful HRDD by imposing the risk of civil liability onto businesses failing to conduct proper HRDD. The turn to binding HRDD will necessarily have transformative effects on the way affected businesses operate. It will trigger the emergence of a whole HRDD bureaucracy involving rules, processes and institutions. Yet, whether it will lead to greater respect for human rights remains to be seen in practice and depends on the way HRDD will be implemented as well as on the intensity of control exercised by national authorities.



This blog series has delved into the operationalisation of HRDD from theory to practice by business. Through the detailed examination of the HRDD practices of Adidas and Unilever in their supply chains, it has demonstrated that HRDD can profoundly change the internal operations of businesses embracing it.

Despite the fragility and flexibility of the concept that gives rise to uncertainty and ambiguity as to how it should be complied with, businesses that choose to fully engage with the process are transformed by it with a potential effect on their human rights footprint. Truly implementing HRDD throughout a business’ operations and supply chains has the potential to result in human rights risks and impacts being better embedded within the business’ corporate governance framework. This is because HRDD focuses on identifying and managing these risks and impacts and to use those findings to inform business decisions, such as whether to engage in business activities in a particular country or whether to enter into contractual relations with a particular supplier. The development and adoption of hard law imposing HRDD complementing existing soft law initiatives contributes to the diffusion of HRDD into a greater number of businesses.

This blog series paves the way for further research into whether the HRDD mechanisms implemented by Adidas, Unilever and other businesses are truly effective to protect human rights. On the ground research at a local level involving engagement with the relevant business being assessed and its stakeholders is crucial to determining the effectiveness of specific HRDD mechanisms in practice. A broader examination of a greater number of businesses’ HRDD practices will allow for conclusions to be drawn as to how businesses can effectively conduct HRDD and whether there are particular practices and mechanisms that are more effective.

[1] Report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, John Ruggie: Protect, Respect and Remedy: a Framework for Business and Human Rights (7 April 2008), UN Doc. A/HRC/8/5, [56] [2008 Report].

[2] Radu Mares, “Respect” Human Rights: Concept and Convergence, in R Bird, D Cahoy and J Darin (eds) Law, Business and Human Rights: Bridging the Gap, Edward Elgar Publishing (2014), p 8.

[3] John Ruggie, The Corporate Responsibility to Respect Human Rights (2010).

[4] 2008 Report, supra note 1, [25].

[5] Justine Nolan, The Corporate Responsibility to Respect Human Rights: Soft Law of Not Law?, in S Deva and D Bilchitz (eds), Human Rights Obligations of Business: Beyond the Corporate Responsibility to Respect? (2013), p 140 [Nolan]; Radu Mares, Human Rights Due Diligence and the Root Causes of Harm in Business Operations: A Textual and Contextual Analysis of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, 10(1) Northeastern University Law Review 1 (2018), p 45 [Mares].

[6] Mares, ibid, p 6.

[7] Stephanie Bijlmakers, Corporate Social Responsibility, Human Rights, and the Law, London: Routledge (2018), p 120.

[8] Ibid; Surya Deva, Treating Human Rights Lightly: A Critique of the Consensus Rhetoric and the Language Employed by the Guiding Principles, in S Deva and D Bilchitz (eds) Human Rights Obligations of Business: Beyond the Corporate Responsibility to Respect?, Cambridge University Press (2013), p 101.

[9] Mares, supra note 5, p 45.

[10] Ibid, p 1.

[11] Tim Bartley, Rules without Rights: Land, Labor, and Private Authority in the Global Economy, Oxford University Press (2018), p 178.

[12] Ibid.

[13] The HRDD article of the treaty is discussed in further detail in a previous blog.