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GENEVA, Feb 15 2010 (IPS) - The history of the relationship between trade and human rights is a history of suspicion, and to some extent of deliberate reciprocal ignorance. Yet, trade goes hand in hand with human rights. Trade presupposes human interaction, respect and understanding. If conducted with respect, “trade polishes and softens the most barbarous mores”, to quote Montesquieu and his theory of “sweet trade”.

Human rights and trade rules, including World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, are based on the same values: individual freedom and responsibility, non-discrimination, rule of law, and welfare through peaceful cooperation among individuals. Not only are they based on the same fundamental values; they are also the result of common concerns.

Both human rights and global trade rules were considered a key element of the post-World War II order, a rampart against totalitarianism. It is no coincidence that the seeds of the multilateral trading system were planted at the same time as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights was being drafted in the mid-1940s. Both were seen as indispensable to world peace. In spite of these common underpinnings, for decades the interaction between the trade and human rights communities seemed to be governed by distrust.

What role do human rights play in trade? First, civil and political rights are a key ingredient of good governance, which in turn is essential to the proper conduct of trade relations. Freedom of expression, for example, brings transparency, one of the core principles of the world trading system. Secondly, social, economic and cultural rights, often seen as the main victims of globalization and of the opening of markets, are important ingredients for successful trade liberalization.

Besides, trade measures are the most commonly used instrument in developed countries to put pressure on states violating human rights.

But more importantly, trade is a means to raise the standards and conditions of living of all. The opening of markets creates efficiency and helps spur development, thereby contributing to the implementation of the fundamental human rights that are social and economic rights.

The reduction of trade barriers in agriculture, enhanced market access for agricultural products and the gradual decrease in subsidies provided by rich countries to their farmers, for example, all contribute to the same objective: the implementation of the right to food for all.

Contrary to a misconception that is unfortunately too widely spread, the primary vocation of the WTO is to regulate, not to deregulate trade. By putting in place norms to regulate trade flows and remove trade distortions, the WTO aims to create a global level playing field, where fairness is the rule and where the rights of individual members are safeguarded.

Of course, trade rules are not perfect. They may, in some cases, have unintended consequences on human rights. Some claimed so, for example, with respect to intellectual property rights. I sense, however, a growing awareness among trade experts of the importance of human rights and of the role trade can play in promoting and anchoring such rights. The concerns sparked by certain provisions of the Trade-related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement led negotiators to agree, in 2005, to amend the TRIPS Agreement to facilitate access of developing countries deprived of domestic pharmaceutical production capability to affordable medicines. Similarly, discussions are underway about the possible protection of folklore and traditional knowledge.

While trade can promote development and contribute to the reinforcement of human rights, it is not a panacea. Trade liberalization can entail social costs. To be successful, the opening of markets requires solid social policies to redistribute wealth or provide safeguards to the men and women whose living conditions have been disrupted by evolving trade rules.

This is what I have called the “Geneva consensus”, under which the opening of markets is necessary to our collective well-being, but does not suffice in itself, unless strong safety nets help correct the imbalances between winners and losers at the national level. It does not suffice unless the countries which do not enjoy sufficient human, technical, and financial resources to build the necessary infrastructure or to put in place such safety nets domestically are assisted by the international community.

For trade to act as a positive vector for the reinforcement of human rights, a coordinated international effort is needed. A coherent approach, which integrates trade and human rights policy goals, should be developed. Coherence should become the guiding principle in fostering development and human rights: coherence between the local and the global, between the world of trade and the world of human rights, between the WTO as an institution and the various organizations active in the field of human rights.

Today’s world may be flat, to paraphrase Thomas Friedman, but it is not united. It is, on the contrary, more fragmented than ever. The wind of globalization, which has been blowing during the past few decades, has dispersed our energies. We now need to bring them together and act in a coordinated way. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Pascal Lamy is Director-General of the World Trade Organisation.

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