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Human Rights Due Diligence: Norm Contestation in the Business and Human Rights Regime


PD Dr. Janne Mende

DFG-funded research project. Funding period: 2022-2025

About the Project:

Whether in form of the French Duty of Vigilance Law, the Supply Chain Due Diligence Act in Germany, or draft regulations on EU level, human rights due diligence (HRDD) has taken centre stage in in the business and human rights (BHR) regime, which regulates business activities in light of human rights standards. HRDD has gained widespread recognition as a pivotal standard to operationalize the corporate responsibility to respect human rights.

Yet what exactly HRDD entails or should entail, and who is responsible for conducting and monitoring it, remains highly contested as the great variety of actors involved in the BHR regime attach different understandings and expectations to the norm.

This project investigates the contested processes by which relevant actors in the BHR regime interpret, and thus give meaning to HRDD. The project is guided by the overall question: How does the contestation over divergent expectations and understandings shape the HRDD norm as such?

We take cutting-edge debates in International Relations (IR) norm research as our conceptual point of departure. Starting from the premise that norm contestion is a productive process that constitutes norms and facilitates their evolution, we aim to trace and unpack contestations over the meaning of HRDD. To do so, we first map the manifold understandings and expectations that actors, or norm interpreters, in the BHR regime attribute to HRDD. We then focus on four themes of contestation in the debates: (1) the norm’s soft and hard law dimensions, (2) the attribution of responsibility to regulate and conduct HRDD,  with a specific focus on the relationship between public and private actors, (3) the degree of generality vs sectoral and issue-specificity of HRDD, and (4) the relationship between HRDD and legal liability.

The project contributes to an understanding of the different constellations of meanings that drive the debates and, therefore, the evolution of the HRDD norm in the BHR regime; conceptually, studying of the production of meaning around HRDD will allow us to examine the processes by which contestation facilitates the development of norms in IR.

Empirically, the project examines two cases demonstrating the global relevance of the HRDD and including positions in the Global North and South: The EU's mandatory HRDD initiative and the negotiations of a treaty on BHR at the UN Human Rights Council. Our analysis concerns documents, produced and submitted as part of the stakeholder consultation processes, and in-depth interviews with key stakeholders.

Staff Member(s):

head of project: Janne Mende

Janne Mende is a political scientist with a specialization in International Relations and International Political Theory. The awardee of the Franz-Xaver-Kaufmann-Prize 2022 heads the Research Group MAGGI since 2020. She also leads DFG-funded projects in the issue area of business and human rights and is Research Associate at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies Geneva. Prior to her time at the MPIL, she has held positions as deputy professor for Transnational Governance at the Technical University of Darmstadt, project leader at the Institute for Political Sciences at the University of Giessen, postdoctoral fellow at the Bamberg Graduate School of Social Sciences and postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Development and Decent Work at the University of Kassel. Janne Mende has held visiting positions at the WZB – Berlin Social Science Center, Research Unit Global Governance, the School of Global Studies in Gothenburg, the Danish Institute for Human Rights in Copenhagen, the Research Centre Human Rights at the University of Vienna and the New School for Social Research in New York, among others.

Imge Akaslan

Imge Akaslan is a Senior Research Fellow in the project since October 2023. Her research focuses on the labor standards in global supply chains, actors in the business and human rights regime, and social compliance mechanisms. In her doctoral dissertation, she examined variation in the enforcement of labor standards in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Through the in-dept study of SMEs in Turkish garment and textile industries, she demonstrated how small enterprises function, and identfied new actors with the potential to influence variation in the enforcement of labor standards. Imge holds a BS in Global and International Affairs from Middle East Technical University, an MA in Political Science from State University of New York at Binghamton, and a PhD from University of Connecticut.

Marcel Frentzel

Marcel Frentzel has been a student assistant in the project since March 2023. He was already a student assistant in the previous DFG project "Business Actors beyond Public and Private: Authority, Legitimacy and Responsibility in the United Nations Human Rights Regime" from 2018-2021. Since 2019, he is studying "Democracy and Governance" in the Master's program at the Justus Liebig University Giessen. He completed his bachelor's degree in political science and philosophy at the University of Kassel in 2019. His research interests are in the areas of democratic theory, international political theory and postcolonial theory.

Former staff member: Richard Georgi

After leaving his position in the DFG project, where Richard had investigated norm contestation in the business and human rights field at EU and UN levels, he joined the School of Global Studies (SGS) at the University of Gothenburg as a researcher in the field of security, peace/conflict, and human rights. In his new project, Richard studies how social, economic, and political transformations engendered by peace agreements trigger new contestations and (violent) conflicts. Also, he is dedicated to a book project based on his PhD dissertation in the field of Peace & Development at SGS. The focus is on the political activism of human rights defenders amidst a deferred promise of peace and violent political. Richrds overall research interests concern human rights, business regulations and transformations of capitalism, political violence, peace & conflict research, activism, post-structuralist philosophy, ethnography of discourses, and feminist methodologies. He has teaching experiences in the areas of gender and postcolonial studies, political theory, global governance, human rights, and securitization and migration in/through political spaces.

Further Links

Business and Human Rights Resources

The portal is curated by an international research group dedicated to advancing human rights in business. The website pools resources and news concerning human rights policy and performances of over 10,000 companies in over 180 countries. The research group engages with companies and governments to urge them to share information publicly.

Business and Human Rights Journal

The Business and Human Rights Journal (BHRJ) provides an authoritative platform for scholarly debate on all issues concerning the intersection of business and human rights in an open, critical and interdisciplinary manner.

OHCHR and business and human rights

OHCHR leads the business and human rights agenda within the UN system. The website hosts a range of important resources, such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and tools for their implementation.

Business & Human Rights in Germany

An overview of information on the state of the business and human rights regime in Germany, including resources on Germany's National Action Plan to implement the UN Guiding Principles and the Supply Chain Act.