Should trade be considered a human right?

‘Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.’
– The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights celebrates its 60th anniversary on 10 December 2008. This declaration has served as a foundation of international law in the intervening years and also holds the record as the most translated document in the world; it is available in over 360 languages. One of the main areas of focus of the declaration is on economic rights, which has been further detailed in the UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Ensuring the right to work is a central tenant of both these documents, but never do they explicitly mention trade as a mechanism for ensuring this fundamental right. And yet trade plays a key role in promoting the economic growth and stability that jobs and workers rely on. The Trade and Poverty in Latin America (COPLA) programme has therefore taken this anniversary as an opportunity to pose the question: ‘Should trade be considered a human right?’

Responses from the experts

Trade as a human right: A summary of arguments
by Alejo Loitegui

A graphic summary of the arguments for and against considering trade as a human right. READ AND COMMENT >

Should trade be considered a human right?

This document, which gathers together the arguments below, is available for download and printing. (PDF 518kb)


Protecting access to markets
by Soraya Fernandez, Instituto Boliviano de Comercio Exterior

Although trade does not currently enjoy the status of a human right, it is a tool of the market that has, historically, contributed to the wellbeing of humankind. In this way, bringing goods to market is a practice inherent to human nature that should not be obstructed. The lack of the concept of a ‘right to trade’ impedes individuals and/ or firms from exercising their civil rights and the right to be free from discrimination in access to national and international markets... READ AND COMMENT >

Economics and human rights: Narrowing the gap
by Sarah Hague, Save the Children UK

Trade, like income, has little intrinsic value to human well-being. But it is instrumental in achieving human rights, as it creates the means for providing additional resources; both at the individual level (through employment and expanded markets) and at the country level (through national expenditure and growth), which can then be harnessed to deliver rights. It is also worth noting that the relationship between trade and human rights is two-way; the realisation of rights can lead to increases in trade, and other aspects of development, as people’s human capital accumulates... READ AND COMMENT >


Making trade work for development: rights are the wrong approach
by Mareike Meyn, ODI

The suggestion that trade should be considered a human right is interesting, but to be useful it needs to be developed much further. In particular it is necessary to address two key questions: What favourable features of trade would considering it as a human right help to highlight? And is it possible to identify compliant and non-compliant behaviour? ... READ AND COMMENT >

Trade is not a Human Right, it is merely a tool
by Mariano Fernandez Valle, CIPPEC

Trade should only be understood as a tool that is at the service of the state’s obligation to guarantee human rights within its jurisdiction... READ AND COMMENT >