Globalisation of trade liberalisation under the WTO: its effects on human rights and social justice

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Trade liberalization as an integral part of economic globalization has achieved phenomenal boost with the advent of the WTO in the mid-1990s. The protection and promotion of human rights as the core value of dignified human existence has attained its preeminence with the emergence of the UN. Both, emerging at the aftermath of the Second World War, are now institutionalized and internationalized that impinge on state sovereignty, socio-economic imperatives, and cultural plurality of the world. Trade-induced income has the potential for better economic conditions and living standards, resulting in greater ability to enjoy human rights and social justice. But trade liberalization often creates new opportunities and challenges. Those who can take the advantage of these new opportunities enjoy human rights more than those who cannot cope with the new challenges. Seemingly this inequality has far reaching effects on human rights and distributive socio-economic justice. The true nexus between trade liberalization and human rights has become a recurring feature of contemporary international discourse and is the subject-matter of this article. The article critically examines their interface and the ability of international law to render them mutually supportive. It finds that trade liberalization is complimentary to human rights in some instances. But the distant goal of humanism is, more often than not, lost in the pursuit of immediate economic gains. This reality has relegated the human rights protection regime to the status of soft law, which often fails to grapple with hard economic rationales. In the event of a conflict between international standards and obligations emanating from both trade liberalization and human rights, it is the former that receives priority over the latter. This posture is further compounded by the fact that the WTO is devoid of any direct human rights consideration. It promotes human rights only incidentally as an opportunistic fulcrum to advance a global free trade. This fragmentary adherence to human rights limited only to flourishing markets has some negative impacts that far outweigh its paltry positive impacts on human rights. The article suggests that it is time for the WTO to mainstreaming human rights into its trade liberalization agenda. Trade has a significant impact on the lives of all global citizens. The WTO, being an organization of raising living standards and promoting sustainable development, cannot afford to ignore global social benefits and public interests. The realm of trade is in no way exempt from juscogens and erga omnes obligations emanating from core human rights, which can be relied upon to challenge the dominance of trade law. This is not to trivialize the potential of trade liberalization in inducing worldwide economic growth. Should this prospective growth eventuate, it would improve the economic and social conditions of people particularly in developing countries, thereby enhancing their ability to enjoy human rights and social justice. This complementary link between human rights and trade must be recognized. The task at hand is not to undermine the ongoing trade liberalization, but to tame it to be responsive to social justice and human rights friendly.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-33
Number of pages33
JournalIndian journal of international economic law
Issue number2008
Publication statusPublished - 2008


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