The Ever Expanding Role of Trade Agreements: Human Rights

For years, I’ve been fighting what feels like a rearguard battle to keep free trade agreements focused on free trade. It can be a real struggle. Labor issues, environmental issues, and intellectual property are all solidly part of U.S. trade policy. Next up might be human rights.

The European Union has had human rights in its trade agreements for a while now, in the form of a provision that allows the EU to suspend the trade agreement if its partner does not sufficiently protect human rights. Recently, in their trade talks with the EU, both Canada and Japan have raised objections to such a provision, based on the view that they are developed countries that already protect human rights, and thus shouldn’t be subject to the EU’s scrutiny on this issue.

It will be interesting to see how the United States reacts if the EU demands such a provision as part of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) talks. Many lawmakers and commentators would object, I think. On the other hand, there might also be some U.S. support for the provision. Consider this from the Financial Times:

In a move that will cause concern with some US negotiating partners such as Brunei and Vietnam, [Senator Ron] Wyden says he would also like to see trade agreements address human rights, something advocated by fellow Democrats.

“I think it’s the responsible thing to do and I think it will bring more support for the cause of trade expansion,” Mr Wyden says.

I have a number of objections to the inclusion of human rights in trade agreements. One is that, contrary to what Senator Wyden suggests, including these issues will, in my view, make it much harder to achieve the trade liberalization that is at the core of these agreements. It moves the debate away from the basic issue of how we are better off with free trade, and in the process adds new opponents to such agreements.

Another is that people don’t really agree on what constitutes human rights. Are we talking about the right to free speech or the right to food? There are very different implications from the different conceptions.

I think it’s important to have conversations about rights at the international level. Even if we don’t all agree, we can learn a lot from each other. But as a condition for negotiating free trade agreements, adding in human rights probably just means we are less likely to achieve freer trade.