Garment workers hold stickers bearing US$177 during a demonstration to demand an increase of their minimum salary in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo by Omar Havana/Getty Images.

Garment workers hold stickers bearing US$177 during a demonstration to demand an increase of their minimum salary in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo by Omar Havana/Getty Images.

Trade policy is a blunt instrument for realizing human rights. Although many trade agreements now include commitments on human rights-related issues - particularly labour rights - not everyone agrees that linking trade to compliance with human rights norms is appropriate, let alone effective.

Sceptics point out that such provisions may become an excuse for interference or ‘disguised protectionism’ and admittedly anyone would be hard-pressed to identify many concrete improvements which can be directly attributed to social and human rights clauses in trade agreements.

This lack of discernible impact has a lot to do with weak monitoring and enforcement. A more fundamental problem is the tendency of trading partners to gloss over – both in the way that commitments are framed and in subsequent monitoring efforts – significant implementation gaps between the standards states sign up to, and the reality.

Working from ‘baseline’ international standards and treating each state’s human rights treaty ratification record as an indicator of compliance does offer objective verifiability. But it also means underlying economic, structural, cultural, social, and other problems, often go unidentified and unaddressed in the trading relationship.

Regulatory failings of trading partners

Those with sufficient leverage can use dispute resolution or enforcement proceedings to signal displeasure at the regulatory failings of their trading partners, as recently shown by the European Commission (EC) in relation to labour violations by trading partners – against South Korea under the 2011 EU-South Korea Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and Cambodia under the EU’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) scheme.

These actions do show a more proactive and rigorous EU approach to monitoring and enforcement and have been largely welcomed – especially by trade unions – as a necessary political response to persistent failings by the states to address violations of fundamental labour rights. However, claiming any major victories on behalf of the workers who produce the goods being traded seems premature.

The ‘implementation gaps’ - between human rights commitments made in a state-to-state context and the reality of the human rights situation on the ground - mean there may be cases where enforcement action under a trading arrangement, such as the removal of trade preferences, may actually make things worse. Some local unions have expressed concern that the EU action against Cambodia may be detrimental to vulnerable migrant women factory workers, especially in the context of a worsening economic situation due to the pandemic.

Making stakeholder voices heard

There are routes through which people with first-hand knowledge of human rights-related problems arising from trading relationships – such as labour rights abuses in global supply chains – can make their voices heard. Unions have used consultative bodies set up under trade agreements to highlight labour abuses in trading partner countries - this helped to shift the Commission’s strategy towards South Korea.

But the rather vague and open-ended mandates of these consultative bodies, and their reliance on cash-strapped civil society organisations to do much of the heavy lifting, means they are not a solid basis for systematic follow-up of human rights problems.

And yet, every country is likely to have a number of agencies with interests and expertise in these issues. Beyond labour inspectorates, this could include environmental regulators, licensing bodies, ombudsmen, national healthcare bodies, special-purpose commissions, ‘responsible business’ oversight and certification bodies, local government authorities and national human rights institutions.

At present these groups are barely mentioned in trade agreements with monitoring frameworks for human rights. And if they do feature, there tends to be little in the agreement terms to guarantee their participation.

To seriously address implementation gaps, there needs to be much greater and more systematic use of these domestic regulatory bodies in human rights monitoring and enforcement activities. These bodies are potentially vital sources of information and analysis about the many different social, economic, environmental and human rights consequences of trade, and can also contribute to designing and delivering ‘flanking measures’ needed to assist with the mitigation of human rights-related risks or adverse impacts which have been detected.

Looking further ahead, monitoring practitioners may find - as those involved in the EU GSP+ scheme have already noticed - that close and visible engagement with domestic regulatory bodies helps strengthen a regulator in getting clearer political support and better resources. It can also help with greater ‘buy-in’ to human rights reform agendas, creating conditions for a positive legacy in the form of more confident, committed, and capable domestic regulatory bodies.

Paying more attention to synergies that exist between the work of domestic regulatory bodies and the principles and objectives which cause states to seek human rights commitments from their trading partners is a vital contribution to the concept of ‘building back better’ from the present crisis.

The goal should be to move from the present system – which veers between largely ineffective consultative arrangements and adversarial, often high stakes, dispute resolution – to more cooperative and collaborative systems which draw more proactively from the knowledge and expertise of domestic regulatory bodies, not only in the identification and monitoring of risks, but also in the delivery of jointly agreed strategies to address them.

This article is part of the Chatham House Global Trade Policy Forum, promoting research and policy recommendations on the future of global trade.