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Trade Agreements should be assessed in Light of Human Rights

Pacific countries negotiating trade agreements should seriously consider carrying out human rights impact assessments before entering into binding agreements, urged the Regional Office for the Pacific of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

Many Pacific Island countries are involved in negotiations on trade agreements, including those relating to PACER-Plus, Economic Partnership Agreements with the European Union and World Trade Organisation (WTO) accession. In particular, Vanuatu is considering acceding to the WTO as early as September 2011.
“Governments have human rights obligations to protect the economic, social and cultural rights of their people. The rights to health, food, education and work need to be protected and trade agreements need to be designed to give effect to them,” said Matilda Bogner, Regional Representative for the Pacific of OHCHR.
Human rights obligations are also binding on Australia, New Zealand and EU member states that are parties to trade agreements with Pacific Island countries. These countries equally have an obligation to ensure that the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights by people in the Pacific is not undermined through such agreements.

The OHCHR Regional Office for the Pacific and UNDP Pacific Centre have developed a number of materials on trade and human rights. In early August, they finalised an information sheet on Pacific Trade and the Right to Health. It argues that trade liberalisation does not always lead to economic growth and may instead lead to reduced levels of government spending on services such as health, education and other social programmes, which in turn may negatively impact on peoples enjoyment of their human rights. Trade liberalisation may also reduce the space for governments to regulate in these areas.

The information sheet goes on to recommend that all proposed trade agreements should be assessed in terms of their impact on human rights.

The UN Special Rapporteur on food has developed draft “Guiding Principles on Human Rights Impact Assessments of Trade and Investment Agreements,” which urges all states to prepare human rights impact assessments prior to the conclusion of trade and investment agreements. The draft is currently being shared for consultation before submission to the UN Human Rights Council for adoption.

“It is important that people understand the possible impacts of trade agreements so that they can influence the final agreement to ensure basic human rights are upheld, such as the right to health, education and work,” said Ms. Bogner. “A human rights impact assessment would allow the governments involved, as well as civil society organizations and communities to make an informed assessment about how the agreement will affect them.”

OHCHR and UNDP Pacific Centre are currently finalising a more comprehensive document, Trade Agreements and Human Rights in the Pacific, which looks at the human rights implications of trade agreements, and is scheduled for release later in 2011.


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