UNITAR High Level Panel on Human Rights and Trade, Statement by Ms. Navanethem Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Geneva, 27 September 2010

Executive Director Lopez,
Distinguished Participants,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am very pleased to be with you today to discuss the human rights dimension of trade.  This initiative dovetails with the WTO Public Forum where a few days ago, at the request of Director-General Pascal Lamy, I addressed the issue of the gender-related aspects of the interaction between human rights and trade. 

On that occasion, I pointed out that while trade liberalization may have increased women’s access to paid jobs, this progress has not been spread equally across sectors and varies from country to country. To level the playing field and foster equitable development strategies, there is a clear need for an international trade regime to incorporate all human rights, including the rights of women, and accommodate their special needs and those of the most vulnerable, particularly the poor and the marginalized.

Such need has become even starker against the background of the recent food crisis, economic recession and financial downturn that have already hampered initiatives to alleviate the dire conditions of the very poor.  This matter was discussed last week at the World Summit on the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals, which I attended.  

Today, I would like first to tackle some of the arguments which would suggest that free trade and human rights are ostensibly incompatible.   I will then explore practical ways in which the international trade and human rights systems can develop synergies to bolster global governance, equality and prosperity.

Let me begin by observing that it is true that human rights are predicated on the equality of all human beings, while the imperative of comparative advantage in trade inevitably creates winners and losers.  And it is also true that human rights priorities lie in the protection and empowerment of the vulnerable and the marginalized, while success in trade rewards those who possess a competitive edge in navigating the global markets.  Further, human rights law insists on State obligations, while the liberalization of trade may make the role of States progressively shrink.
I maintain, however, that as engines of human well-being, progress and mutual understanding, the common and potentially reciprocally reinforcing aspects of human rights and trade far outweigh their contrasting features. 

It is not by coincidence that modern human rights law and efforts of the international community to establish a multilateral trading system started in the immediate aftermath of World War II.  At that time, the international community resolved to expunge ideologies of racial supremacy from relations between and among States, as well as the notion that might makes unconstrained right.
The parallel building of the normative and institutional architecture of both human rights and trade must now move, as Pascal Lamy has noted, onto a second phase, that of global governance.  Such global governance, he emphasized, should be underpinned by common values, managed by legitimate actors, and exercised according to accepted rules and a system of justice and arbitration.

I submit that human rights standards provide an invaluable framework to address the social dimension of both global governance and trade liberalization. During the past 60 years, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, several human rights instruments, and the work of the UN human rights treaty bodies have furthered the quest for collective and common values of the global community.

In this respect, I would like to draw your attention to the right to development and take this opportunity to remind you that next year will mark the 25th anniversary of the UN Declaration on the Right to Development which enshrined this right as an indispensible component of the human rights normative architecture.

The right to development is unique because it encapsulates the universality, interdependence, indivisibility and interrelatedness of all human rights, civil and political, and economic, social and cultural. Furthermore, the right to development incorporates the principle of international cooperation, and the individual and collective responsibility of States to create an environment conducive to just and equitable development for all.
The inclusive and participatory dimension of the right to development, as well as the principles of accountability, non-discrimination, and equality contained in all human rights standards, suggest the involvement of a broader range of social actors in the various undertakings that engage individual UN Member States and the international community as a whole, including their negotiations and deliberations at the WTO.

Indeed, I cannot overemphasize that all human rights principles and the responsibilities that flow from them also apply, mutatis mutandis, to intergovernmental organizations and mechanisms, including an international trade regime.

Pascal Lamy has pioneered an approach that made the Doha Development Round negotiations more development and human rights friendly.  

Pascal sought to give teeth to the preamble of the WTO Charter which refers to concepts such as “raising standards of living,” “sustainable development” and “full employment.”   These concepts are wholly consonant with, and in fact depend on, the fulfilment of human rights, including the right to development.   In this perspective, the completion of the Doha Development Agenda could further contribute to create an enabling environment to pursue and implement policies and strategies that uphold human rights while fostering commerce and economic prosperity.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me offer now two practical examples of how the human rights and trade systems can reinforce each other. 

First, I note that the Trade Policy Review Mechanism of the WTO could include analyses of how protection or abuse of human rights might affect the realizations of the WTO’s objectives.  In this perspective, measuring the impact of trade policy on human rights is essential.  Such assessment would help to predict the future consequences of proposed trade policies on the most vulnerable, assist governments in making the right decisions, and, if necessary, correct their course of action in order to meet their human rights obligations. This must be achieved before agreements are cast in stone.

The use of human rights criteria to underpin claims by States regarding violations of WTO rules in the dispute settlement process is the second area that eminently lends itself to collaboration. This approach would be particularly useful in relation to public health issues where flexibility is badly needed, but where corporate combativeness and unilateral trade pressures crowd out other considerations.  As a result, the ability of countries to strike the necessary balance between public health protection and obligations under free trade and intellectual property agreements is compromised.  In turn, this undermines the human rights dimension of access to affordable medicines. A recent independent study by the Erasmus University of Rotterdam has found that up to 86 percent of the population living in low and middle income countries would be pushed into poverty as a result of purchasing common life-saving medicines.

Human rights standards can help ensure that narrow economic interests do not come at the expense of the most vulnerable.  This also may apply in the case of trade distorting export subsidies by developed countries.  Farmers in poor countries that cannot offer similar protection to their agricultural sector are clearly at a disadvantage. Doha round negotiators have a crucial role in ensuring that trade rules do not hamper the progressive realization of economic, social and cultural rights.

United Nations and regional human rights mechanisms, national human rights institutions, and non-governmental organizations can assist States in the difficult task of developing trade rules respectful of human rights principles of equality, participation, non-discrimination and accountability.  These are indeed obligations that States have already accepted as their own.

As a result of the global financial and economic crises, the need for regulation is now widely acknowledged. When it comes to essential elements of welfare and human rights, such as food, health care, and education, the international community and States cannot and should not leave the concerns of human welfare solely to market forces.

I look forward to more opportunities to work with all concerned partners to promote and integrate human rights principles into the multilateral trading system.

Thank you.