International Trade and Human Rights: An Unfinished Debate
Abadir M. Ibrahim
We are living in a world in which the moral legitimacy of cultures, religions, ideologies, and the practices of states, international organizations, and even corporations is being measured against human rights norms. The moral significance of and practical respect for human rights has grown so much that human rights have been described as a global religion, and a new standard for civilization. International trade, a popular and much debated issue of our time, is one of those phenomena that is currently being measured against the standards of human rights. Leading experts remain divided about whether global trade is good or bad for human rights. There are those who are utterly convinced that the world trade regime has a mutual basis with human rights and see potential in the growth of one as a positive sign for the other. There are also those who, on the other hand, are equally convinced that human rights and international trade regimes are in a relationship of enmity.
One should, however, conceive of the relationship between world trade and human rights as, fundamentally, a relationship in tension, but also as a relationship in which that tension can be significantly minimized through accommodation, convergence, and inter-penetration. It is conceivable that solutions that are acceptable to the majority of political participants in the international community can be reached even where the two regimes—human rights and free trade—clash. This comment argues that the relationship between human rights and international trade is not, and should not be viewed as, a zero-sum game in which one’s gain is necessarily the other’s loss. The comment begins with an explanation of the core tension between the two regimes and goes on to explain, or at least make a proposal for, how this tension could be negotiated…