Making policies work

GREAT insights Magazine

Should We Celebrate the Wedding of Trade and Human Rights?


Aaronson, S.A. 2012. Should We Celebrate the Wedding of Trade and Human Rights? GREAT Insights, Volume 1, Issue 2. March-April 2012. Maastricht: ECDPM

Share Button

When we trade goods, services, and ideas, we are often also affecting human rights. The Internet can help us better understand the relationship between trade and human rights. Citizens in Egypt, Tunisia, and Russia (among other states) have used the internet to understand their rights, express their views, organize political movements, and advance human rights. Alas, some policymakers in these countries have blocked the Internet in the hopes of maintaining power. As the Swedish Foreign Minister Karl Bildt stressed, these officials have tried to wall off their own people from information.(1)

In response, some governments have tried to ensure the free flow of information on the World Wide Web. In 2011, the U.S. and Korea signed the first trade agreement with language designed to ensure that neither country would block the free flow of information without legitimate justification such as public morals or to protect national security.(2) In 2011, the US also proposed that the 9 countries negotiating the Transpacific Partnership prohibit signatories from blocking Internet data flows.(3) US policymakers argue that Internet filtering and censorship are barriers to trade.(4)

Policymakers today not only use trade agreements to protect human rights, they use the threat of less trade as a tool to pressure governments that undermine the human rights of their own citizens. As example, the US and EU have implemented trade sanctions against Syria, Burma, Belarus, North Korea, Zimbabwe and Iran, among others.(5)

Clearly policymakers recognize that trade can be a significant incentive to prod some governments to respect human rights. Yet we know very little about the relationship 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.(6)

This article will examine how policymakers link trade and human rights. In a 2011 study for the World Bank, I found that more than 70 percent of the world’s governments now participate in a preferential trade agreement with human rights requirements.(7) If these human rights provisions are designed carefully, they can work both to improve governance and to empower people to claim their rights. Yet policy makers, scholars, and activists still know very little about the effects of including human rights provisions in trade agreements. 


The marriage of trade and human rights sounds contemporary, but it is in fact ancient. As long as men and women have traded, they have wrestled with questions of human rights. In biblical times, the sea could bring contact with strangers who could enhance national prosperity, but these same strangers might threaten the security of the nation or enslave its people.

Policymakers first began to regulate state behavior regarding trade and human rights in the 19th century. 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 U.S. banned goods manufactured by convict labor in the Tariff Act of 1890 (section 51), Great Britain, Canada and Australia adopted similar bans. Ever so gradually, as markets became increasingly global, these national laws inspired international cooperation. Policymakers first made an explicit link between human rights and trade in the U.S. generalized system of preferences (GSP) program in 1984. NAFTA, signed in 1993, was the first preferential trade agreement to include specific human rights language.

The US, EU, EFTA, and Canada are the main demandeurs of human rights provisions in trade agreements. Table I summarizes the state of human rights provisions in many of their recent trade agreements.

Best Practice: How should policymakers use trade to promote human rights abroad? 

Some countries have decided to use disincentives as a means of advancing the human rights embedded in particular trade agreements. However, sanctions or fines can do little to build demand for human rights or to train governments or factory managers in how to respect human rights. Isolating a government or punishing it will do little to increase the targeted country’s commitment to human rights over time. Other countries rely on dialogue to prod changes, but dialogue may do little to encourage a country to change its behavior. Still others rely on incentives. The European Union requires countries that seek to join the EU (or join a preferential trade agreement) to protect some human rights, and the EU provides foreign aid, financial assistance, and technical expertise to these countries. If candidate countries do not meet human rights objectives, they can’t accede or they may lose their trade agreement benefits. 

Policymakers should think of human rights as a market. Government officials are the suppliers of good governance; their citizens are the demandeurs—the consumers. Hence, policymakers can increase the supply of human rights abroad with incentives such as increased market access, technical assistance and training, and funding for improved governance. However, they should also focus on ways to bolster the inherent demand for human rights among their developing-country trade partners. They can encourage the adoption of new strategies that empower individuals such as apps to monitor government, web sites such as; and tools to evade Internet filters such as TOR.(8) 

Policymakers should also examine carefully the human rights impact of their trade policy decisions. 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. 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. To put it differently, US trade policy may be undermining access to safe affordable food for some of the world’s people.


The world and its people benefit when more governments protect, respect, and realize human rights. Yet some human rights provisions are expensive for developing countries to implement. These governments often have few resources, and yet under many recent trade agreements, they must choose to protect intellectual property, provide access to affordable medicines, and/or invest in education. Trade agreements may prod policy makers to make the human rights priorities of their trade partners their human rights priorities. We don’t know if this strategy ultimately increases the demand for and supply of human rights. To gain better understanding of the costs and benefits of the association of trade and human rights, scholars, policy makers, and activists could use qualitative studies; empirical studies; or human rights impact assessments. Scholars have several global datasets they can use to do empirical research (for example, the CIRI human rights dataset or the now open World Bank datasets). Human rights impact assessments are relatively new; they are designed to measure the potential impact of a trade agreement on internationally accepted human rights standards.(9) Trade and human rights policy makers should collaborate with scholars, NGOs, and others to develop a clear and consistent methodology for evaluating such impact. 

In sum, 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. 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 is Associate Research Professor, Elliott School, GWU and a visiting Scholar at the Quality of Governance Institute, Gothenberg, Sweden. She is the author of 6 books and numerous articles on trade and human rights. 

1. Carl Bildt, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Sweden, “Tear Down these Walls Against Internet Freedom,” 1/25/2010, dyn/content/article/2010- /01/24/AR2010012402297.html. net neutrality.
2. US International Trade Commission, “Potential Economy Wide and Selected Sectoral Effects of the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement,” Investigation No. TA-2104-24, Publication 3949, September 2007, p. 5-4, fn. 98, 
3. Knowledge Ecology International to Senator Patrick Leahy, 1/26/2012,
4. FAC, “Obama Acts on FAC petition against China’s “Great Firewall” 10/19/2011,
5.; and 
6. Susan Ariel Aaronson and Jamie M. Zimmerman, Trade Imbalance: The Struggle to Weigh Human Rights in Trade Policymaking. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 
7. Susan Ariel Aaronson, “Human Rights, “in Jean-Pierre Chauffour and Jean-Christophe Maur, Preferential Trade Agreement Policies for Development: A Handbook (World Bank, 2011)
8. Live at State: Internet Freedom and US Foreign Policy,”; and the TOR project, designed to help individuals anonymously use the Internet. Also see; www://; and Susan Ariel Aaronson, “Using New Technologies, New Media, and Apps to fight Corruption,”


This article was published in GREAT Insights, Volume 1, Issue 2  

Economic recovery and transformationHuman rightsTrade

External authors

Susan Ariel Aaronson