Advancing human rights through trade

chathamhouse.org

Why stronger human rights monitoring is needed and how to make it work

Political shifts, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the struggle for a shared vision of how to ‘build back better’, have reignited the debate about trade and human rights. 

Although many trade agreements take human rights impacts into consideration, the monitoring systems that have emerged so far are not comprehensive. Without robust human rights monitoring, trading partners have little chance of ensuring that their counterparts are meeting their commitments.

While there are considerable structural, political and resource-related challenges to conducting more systematic and effective human rights monitoring, recent experiences in this field can help policymakers design more effective monitoring mechanisms for the future.

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Summary

  • Changing domestic political pressures and priorities, the economic and geopolitical implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the struggle for a shared vision of how to ‘build back better’ from the current crisis, have reignited the debate about trade and human rights.
  • It is possible to identify two main groups of human rights-related concerns about the way that trade and investment agreements are designed and implemented. The first group of concerns arises largely from the effects that a new trade agreement might have on the economies of the trading partners, for instance as a result of exposing local businesses to greater competition, or the effects on the availability or prices of food, medicines or other essential items or services. The second group of concerns stem from the ever-widening scope of trade and investment agreements, now increasingly focussing on ‘behind the border’ issues such as regulatory standards (which may create non-tariff barriers to trade) and investor protection. This, according to some commentators, is contributing to shrinkage in regulatory space to address human rights issues as they emerge.
  • On the other hand, these developments may also create openings for trading partners to find new ways of supporting human rights objectives, through cooperative action that incentivizes and rewards concrete efforts to promote and realize rights.
  • Policymakers have sought to enhance the responsiveness of trade agreements to human rights-related concerns in various ways, including by seeking commitments from trading partners to effectively implement internationally recognized human rights and labour standards, and to guard against a possible ‘race to the bottom’ (in relation to labour and environmental standards in particular), and by putting in place arrangements for further cooperation with a view to maintaining and improving regulatory and policy approaches.
  • However, without robust human rights monitoring systems, trading partners have little chance of being able to tell for sure whether human rights commitments made in the context of trade agreements have been met, whether human rights benefits of trade relationships are being maintained and fairly shared, whether the trade agreement is contributing to improving or worsening human rights situations, or whether steps taken to mitigate risks are working as they should.
  • Although many trade agreements either provide for or envisage human rights monitoring in some shape or form, the monitoring systems that have emerged so far are not especially coherent or systematic. However, resolving these problems is not at all straightforward, and there are many methodological, structural, political and resource-related challenges to contend with. This paper considers the prospects for improvement, based on experiences with human rights monitoring (or ‘monitoring-like’ activities) thus far.

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