Re-thinking Trade and Human Rights


The last decade has seen the development of a burgeoning literature on the relationship between international trade and the protection of human rights, driven in part by a series of influential reports produced by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Some human rights commentators have been heavily critical of the trade regime, pointing to a variety of ways in which obligations under international trade law purportedly undermine the ability of governments to fulfil their human rights obligations. Others see the potential for strong synergies between the two regimes, and argue that international trade can be a powerful force for raising global standards of human rights protection.

This paper argues that the contemporary trade and human rights literature is seriously flawed, in two related ways. First, this literature has developed without any clear and explicit thinking about what human rights actors and human rights language bring to trade policy debates. As a result, serious engagement between trade and human rights scholars has been hampered. To help remedy this defect, the paper offers (and critiques) five distinct models for thinking about the function that the human rights movement is currently playing in debates about the future of the international trading system. Most importantly, it suggests that the human rights movement acts as a ‘trigger’ for policy learning in the field of international trade.

Second, the paper argues that accounts of the ‘human rights impact’ of the international trade regime are too often one-dimensional and over-simplified. This is because they focus solely on the constraints imposed on governments by international trade law. Drawing on a variety of institutionalist literatures from political sociology and political science, the paper show how the trade regime acts through normative and cognitive channels to socialize participants – rather than merely regulate their behaviour – and thereby helps to define and constitute their trade policy preferences. Attention to these more complicated processes is important because they can be harnessed to help produce an international trading order which is yet more conducive to the protection of human rights.


Antitrust and Trade Regulation | Civil Law | Constitutional Law | Human Rights Law | International Law | International Trade Law

Date of this Version

September 2006