Pericles enacted the first trade embargo. <br>Photo by <a href="">Daniel Lobo</a> (<a href="">CC</a>).
Pericles enacted the first trade embargo.
Photo by Daniel Lobo (CC).

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Commentary: Marrying Trade and Human Rights

Apr 23, 2008

In 432 BC, Athenian officials enacted one of the first peacetime trade sanctions, over a land dispute with neighboring Megara. The legislation warranted mention in Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. Today the relation between trade and human rights makes front page news. Cambodia, Vietnam, Egypt, and India have restricted rice exports to ensure adequate affordable food for their citizens.

Meanwhile, in the U.S. Congress, Democrats have postponed consideration of a U.S.–Colombia free trade agreement. The Democrats argue that because Colombia has not sufficiently protected union leaders from harassment and murder, the United States should not provide the incentive of a trade agreement. When human rights are violated, policymakers are under significant pressure to do something. They often respond by cutting off trade either to protest human rights abroad or to protect their citizens from harm.

Despite the kneejerk politics, we still know very little about the relation between human rights and trade. We don't know if enhanced human rights protections lead to increased trade, or if increased trade leads governments to do more to protect human rights. And we have little insight as to how trade agreements and policies will influence the realization of human rights over time.

But the dearth of information has not stopped policymakers from wedding human rights objectives to trade. For example, U.S. policymakers have used trade sanctions to punish Cuba for its violations of political, civil, and religious rights. But forty years of sanctions have done little to change this situation.

The United States and other governments took a different approach to China. As China sought to join the World Trade Organization, they argued that more trade would encourage policymakers to do more to advance human rights. By including China in the framework of multilateral rules and obligations, they claimed, Chinese leaders would learn habits of good governance. These habits would gradually spill over into the polity as a whole, and more trade and cross-cultural interaction would expose the Chinese people to new ideas about their rights.

The results have been mixed. China has provided more of its citizens with access to education, credit, travel, and other opportunities, and begun to allow public comment on laws and regulations. But China continues to suppress political and religious rights, as well as access to information. Policymakers respond differently to China because of its enormous market and political and economic clout. For China, the marriage of trade and human rights is not a marriage of equals. Trade has trumped human rights.

So how should policymakers use trade to promote human rights abroad?

Policymakers should think of human rights as a market. They can best increase the supply of human rights abroad with incentives such as increased market access, technical assistance and training, and funding for improved governance. Policymakers should also focus on ways to bolster the inherent demand for human rights among their developing-country trade partners.

The European Union follows this approach when helping candidate countries join. Candidate countries are required to protect human rights, and the EU provides candidate countries with considerable foreign aid, financial assistance, and technical expertise. If candidate countries do not meet human rights objectives, they can't accede. In this way, the EU is able to bolster the supply and demand for human rights as it enhances trade. The United States tries to do this also by incorporating provisions for political participation and due process rights in its free trade agreements.

Policymakers should also examine carefully the human rights impact of their trade policy decisions. Americans are just beginning to see how subsidies designed to reduce U.S. oil imports have affected the price and supply of basic foodstuffs at home and abroad. America's support for ethanol made from corn is one of several factors leading to the higher prices and declining supply of basic foods abroad.

With careful deliberation, trade and human rights can be made coherent. Trade should not be wed to human rights simply because it provides a way for citizens of one country to express their displeasure over the human rights practices of other countries. Instead, if policymakers carefully assess the human rights impact of their trade policy choices, they may create an enduring and effective match, and not just a marriage of convenience.

Susan Ariel Aaronson, Research Associate Professor at George Washington University, is the author (with Jamie Zimmerman) of Trade Imbalance: The Struggle to Weigh Human Rights in Trade Policymaking (Cambridge: 2007). Please visit her Trade and Human Rights Blog.

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