Business and Human Rights

Business and Human Rights

Edited by Wesley Cragg

Topics discussed include the debates leading to the creation of the ISO 26000 standard and the United Nations human rights framework for business entities, as well as the nature and limits of the human rights responsibilities of business, the roles and responsibilities of international trade bodies like the World Trade Organization in protecting human rights, and the implications of the current debate for international trade agreements and trade with China. The contributors also explore the effectiveness of voluntary human rights standards in the textile and clothing trade, mining, advertising and the pharmaceutical industries.

Chapter 6: Human rights and international trade: normative underpinnings

Alistair M. Macleod

Subjects: business and management, business leadership, corporate governance, economics and finance, corporate governance, law - academic, human rights, politics and public policy, human rights


In the period following the Second World War, a number of important steps were taken to forge international agreements both to foster international trade and to protect human rights. Thus, in 1947 The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was adopted, and in 1948 there was worldwide endorsement of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These decisions–together with (in the economic domain) the establishment of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and (more recently) the World Trade Organization (WTO), and (in the political domain) the elaboration in more detail of a doctrine of human rights in such documents as The Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) and The Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966)–have contributed to ‘trade liberalization’ going hand in hand with protection of human rights during much of the past half century or so. However, the relationships that have been taking shape to regulate global economic and political conduct both between the various international institutions that have evolved and between the branches of international law that have developed have been marked by some not insignificant tensions, mainly in the area of the ‘structural adjustment’ policies demanded by the IMF. For example, these tensions have made it necessary for special steps to be taken (a) to support agriculture on a sustainable basis; (b) to assist the rural poor; and (c) to create safety nets and job-retraining programs for low-skilled workers in developed countries. Efforts have of course been made from time to time both to mitigate these tensions and to develop ‘linkages’ between trade regulation arrangements and arrangements for the protection of human rights. For example, United Nations embargoes have been imposed on countries in which human rights were being grossly violated (a notable example being the embargo on trade with apartheid South Africa).

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