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Trade Policy for Humanity

By Susan Aaronson, Devin T. Stewart | December 4, 2007

CREDIT: Jon Wiley (CC).

Trade has become increasingly contentious as publics in many countries blame the movement of goods across borders for the effects on human rights associated with the advance of globalization in general. Devin Stewart talks with Susan Aaronson about her new book, Trade Imbalance: The Struggle to Weigh Human Rights Concerns in Trade Policymaking," which she coauthored with Jamie Zimmerman.

Susan, some people believe that trade can hurt human rights, while others believe that trade is the key to lifting people out of poverty and empowering political change in society. Are both sides legitimate?

Public concerns about trade policy and trade agreements are entirely legitimate. I share many of these concerns, but I think that many people tend to talk about trade and trade agreements as if they are the same thing. They are not.

The truth is scholars know very little about the effect of trade on human rights. We know that trade can enhance some rights, while undermining others. Moreover, the effect of trade and a particular trade agreement on human rights changes over time, depending on the type of trade and of course the particular human right in question.

Finally, as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) includes some 30 human rights, we need to be very specific about which rights as well as which trade agreement we are talking about. Although it is difficult to assess the effects of trade in general on human rights, we can assess the impact of particular trade agreements on particular human rights.

Can you give an example of how a particular trade agreement might affect human rights?

The World Trade Organization (WTO) is widely perceived as undermining access to affordable medicines and labor rights. But when the Doha Round of trade talks was first launched in 2001, its members amended WTO rules to ensure that they did not undermine access to affordable medicines in the developing world. While many drugs remain too expensive for the poorest citizens in the developing world, WTO rules are not causing or perpetuating that problem.

The real problem is policymakers ignore their international human rights obligations under international law when they make trade policy. In most countries, policymakers develop trade policies as if they are strictly commercial policies. They weigh the interests of their producers and consumers. They may include national security or political concerns, but these officials rarely introduce the interests of the global community into such deliberations.

As a result, although policymakers are well aware of the human rights consequences of some of their trade decisions, they have few incentives to ensure that trade policies advance the 30 human rights outlined under the UDHR. The right to food provides a good example. No country is explicitly tasked to develop trade compromises that promote humankind's right to food. Policymakers develop their trade positions based on the interests of their agricultural producers and consumers—the people who vote for them or fund their campaigns.

With this book, I hope to change their thinking and encourage these officials to weigh the human rights consequences of their trade decisions—not just for their constituents but for humanity. It won't be easy!

Why should readers be interested in this topic?

There are many reasons: We all have a collective responsibility to uphold human rights. Business, the most important agent of globalization, is often caught between market forces, failure of state actors to protect human rights, and unclear WTO rules. When policymakers fail to coordinate trade and human rights, it undermines achievement of both policy goals.

The book uses stories about AIDS, frogs, chocolate, culture, tires, and other topics to provide readers with new insights into this relationship. It also includes the first study of how South Africa, Brazil, the United States, and the European Union make trade policy, coordinate trade and human rights objectives, and resolve conflicts. Finally, we make recommendations to citizens as well as policymakers to help make trade and human rights policies more coherent.

When did these concerns about trade emerge in the policy debate?

As long as men and women have traded, they have wrestled with questions of human rights. Archaeological evidence shows that ancient civilizations traded at great risk to their freedoms. According to economist Peter Temin, the ancients shipped a wide range of goods, from wheat to wine. But these traders often lived in fear. When they engaged in trade they risked being captured, sold as slaves, or enslaved by pirates. Not surprisingly, the ancients had a bifurcated view of trade. The sea could bring contact with strangers who could enhance national prosperity, but these same strangers might threaten the security of the nation and its people.

Years later, during the age of exploration, theologians, scholars, and royal advisors debated whether they had the right to exploit the land and wealth of indigenous populations. The economic historian Douglas Irwin notes that Francisco de Vitoria, one of the "founders of international law," contended that the right to trade is "derived from the law of nations.… Foreigners may carry on trade, provided they do no hurt to citizens."

In the centuries that followed, policymakers around the globe developed a wide range of approaches to govern the behavior of states and citizens at the intersection of trade and human rights. Often one state would act and challenge or inspire others to follow. For example, after England banned the slave trade in 1807, it signed treaties with Portugal, Denmark, and Sweden to supplement its own ban. After the United States banned goods manufactured by convict labor in the Tariff Act of 1890 (section 51), Great Britain, Australia, and Canada adopted similar bans.

Gradually, these national laws inspired international cooperation. The GATT was supposed to be a temporary measure governing commercial policies—it was to be superseded by an International Trade Organization, which did have significant labor rights language. But Congress never voted on the ITO, and when the United States abandoned it, all other nations did as well. The temporary GATT became the global trade agreement until 1994. (see Aaronson, Trade and the American Dream, 1995).

What do you say to those who have argued that trade policy should not be mixed up with any "causes"?

How people are treated when goods and services are produced is and has always been a trade policy issue. It is not a "cause." The problem lies in how we talk about trade and what trade agreements do. Trade agreements don't free trade. Trade agreements regulate how and when nations can apply trade distorting measures, from border measures such as tariffs to domestic policies such as subsidies or health and safety standards. They regulate protectionism. They make it hard for governments to put in place protectionist measures, whether such measures are designed to protect workers, provide safe and affordable medicines, or to advantage local producers.

Thus, the rules of the WTO and other trade agreements make it harder to discriminate against countries and firms that undermine human rights, but governments can still do so as long as they don't distort trade. The GATT did not include explicit human rights language, although it did include a ban on goods made with forced labor, and it includes exceptions and waivers that many nations have used to ban trade with nations that abuse human rights or to protect domestic human rights. Moreover, modern trade agreements (including the U.S. and EU bilateral pacts) include considerable and growing human rights language. Trade agreements such as the WTO include explicit language regarding property rights, due process rights, and political participation regarding regulations related to trade and economic growth.

In recent years economists such as Hernando de Soto have argued that without property rights, the poor have no recorded assets, and without such assets they can not participate in economic development. Interestingly, my recent research finds that the WTO agreement prods governments to protect a surprising mix of human rights, including personal integrity rights such as freedom from torture and arbitrary imprisonment, political participation, due process rights, and property rights. Over time, these rights may spill over into the polity as a whole. But the agreement itself says little about human rights, and there are no human rights criteria for membership in the 151-member WTO. Burma can remain a member in good standing of this international trade agreement despite its horrible human rights record. Moreover, as some rights are enhanced through trade, others such as labor rights can be undermined.

You spend a chapter writing about the conflicted approach toward trade and human rights in the United States. You argue that U.S. policymakers don't agree with one another on which rights should be protected, and that U.S. policymakers don't behave like their counterparts overseas. How do you see U.S. trade policy playing out in the near future? Will we see a new trade consensus?

Trade is increasingly contentious in the United States. I think policymakers and business leaders bear a huge part of the blame for the failure to communicate the difference between trade and trade agreements, as well as the benefits of trade agreements. The public is protrade, but frightened by trade agreements.

Moreover, this administration used a lot of its political capital on bilateral trade agreements, ignoring and undermining the WTO. I hope that the next U.S. president will change how we talk about trade and work harder to build a consensus between Congress and the Executive, which share authority for trade policymaking.

I also hope they do a better job weighing the human rights implications of their trade decisions. The United States tends to rely on sanctions and bullying to change human rights policies abroad. Sanctions and reduced trade flows are unlikely to help citizens abroad demand human rights. The United States has become less credible as a role model given its own less-than-stellar human rights record of late. Finally, although the United States provides some capacity building assistance, much of that has been cut in recent years.

Let me give you an example of how the United States acts at the intersection of trade and human rights: The United States has just put in place enhanced sanctions against Burma. I'm sure it made policymakers feel good that they were doing "something." But policymakers have not examined whether trade policy is the best tool to achieve human rights objectives or what human rights or whose human rights might be affected by changes to trade. Our officials should ask: Will the United States have more or less leverage with less commerce? Will more people be better off with less trade?

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Read More: Agriculture, Business, Economy, Globalization, Health, Human Rights, Jobs, Trade, Brazil, Burma, South Africa, United States, Africa, Americas, Asia, Europe, Global

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