Editorial: Trade and Human Rights? Prominence of an on-going debate

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    The human rights aspect of Europe’s external relations is back on the policy map in Brussels. Such a development may be the result of what Jean Bossuyt calls the ‘eye-opener’ that was the Arab Spring for European foreign relations. But how is this linkage perceived in the trade sphere? What does the evidence regarding the impact of Human rights conditionality in trade agreements tell us? Is the linkage desirable at all? These are some of the questions addressed in this special issue of GREAT Insights. They take a renewed importance in the context of the EU’s response to the Arab Spring, explained by Niccolò Rinaldi

    One of the first areas of concern is conditionality. How does the EU go about tying its preferential agreements to Human Rights performance? How much conditionality is enough? What shape should it take? Emile Hafner-Burton argues in favor of strong conditionality, while Jan Vanheukelom warns of blunt ‘on-off’ approaches. Lorand Bartels reminds us that the EU is legally bound to take measures that ‘least disturb the functioning of the agreement’. All of the above seems to point to the need to resort to some kind of ‘smart’ conditionality, revolving around two principles: (i) a clear cutoff line, credible enough to sway the cost-benefit calculations of leaders engaging in human rights violations, and (ii) the targeting of a key sets of goods likely to ‘hit where it hurts’ in the governing regime and sparing the population of broader negative consequences. 

    Another point emerging from this collection of articles is that human rights are a broad concept, going beyond civil and political liberties to include the right to food, child labour, and health. Therefore, tools beyond simple conditionality have to be devised if these dimensions are to be ‘mainstreamed’ in EU trade policy, and lead to a more constructive engagement with partner countries. Kinda Mohamadieh and Susan Aaronson mention the concept of human rights impact assessment of trade agreements, designed to take into account exactly these dimensions. Perhaps such assessments could also be a way of building a shared understanding of the ways in which trade liberalisation should tie in to development and human rights objectives. If anything, the article by Archana Jatkar reminds us that such a shared understanding on the trade and human rights nexus is far from being reached. Suspicion and scepticism from Southern countries is rife. 

    These two questions are only a sample of the many areas where the complex interplay between trade and human rights needs to be explored. One thing that is clear from the recent policy trends and events is that there is a need to go ‘beyond business as usual’ in fitting human rights into trade agreements. The two communities have started talking to each other, but a reinforced interaction is necessary. As Jean Bossuyt and Jan Vanheukelom remind us, more clarity and realism is also needed on the EU side on how domestic politics, institutional constraints, and external tradeoffs – what Vanheukelom calls the ‘political economy of the EU itself’ – influence the EU’s own approach to the question. 

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

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