Human Rights in EU Trade Policy – Between Ambition and Reality


Promoting human rights is one of the explicit goals of EU trade policy. This was underlined by the EU Commissioner for Trade Karel De Gucht even before he took office, in a hearing before the European Parliament. According to Mr De Gucht, promoting human rights is an ‘integral part’ of his approach to trade policy. Similarly, the European Parliament never tires of calling for respect for human rights in EU trade policy. It regularly insists on this in the context of ongoing negotiation processes for bilateral trade agreements, for instance with South Korea, Peru, Colombia and India. On 25 November 2010 it also adopted a resolution of its own concerning respect for human rights in EU trade policy (EP 2010).

Indian farmer and his ox. Copyright: Misereor/Achmin PohlDeclarations of this kind are more than mere rhetoric. This is because since the mid-1990s the EU has developed a systematic strategy and a sophisticated array of instruments to promote human rights in its trade policy. The main elements of this are human rights clauses in bilateral trade agreements, and comprehensive human rights criteria in the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP). The EU deploys these instruments in an attempt to achieve its ambition of upholding and promoting human rights in trade policy. This ambition is not only of a political nature; it is also of a legal nature too. This is because on the one hand the member states, and thus the EU itself, are also obliged to uphold the rights contained in international human rights in their foreign policy. Furthermore, the Treaty of Lisbon obliges the EU to maintain a coherent foreign policy with respect to human rights, and explicitly so in the context of trade.

On the other hand, the effectiveness and credibility of the EU’s approach to human rights in its trade policy is being called into considerable doubt by many developing countries and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), as well as by UN human rights institutions (e.g. FIDH 2006). These criticisms are directed in the first instance at the narrow focus and arbitrary application of the aforementioned human rights instruments. Above all, though, the criticisms revolve around the almost exclusive orientation of the EU’s own trade policy toward European economic interests, as reflected in the ‘Trade, Growth and World Affairs’ strategy and in the bilateral trade agreements (EC 2010). The most recent evidence of this criticism is found in the concluding observations on the fifth report of Germany of May 2011, in which the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights expressed its ‘deep concern’ regarding the impact of the EU’s agriculture and trade policies on the right to food (CESCR 2011, Paragraph 9).

In their proposal for world trade reform published in 2008 as part of the Ecofair Trade Dialogue – ‘Slow Trade Sound Farming’ – MISEREOR and the Heinrich Böll Foundation had already identified respect for human rights as a central principle (Sachs and Santarius 2008: 21). In light of the progress made in this debate, the present Ecofair Trade Dialogue discussion paper now addresses the issue of whether and to what extent the EU has lived up to its ambition and its legal obligation to promote human rights in trade policy. The normative point of departure is provided by the EU’s human rights obligations under international and European law, which are explained in the first section. This provides a basis for the second and third sections, which outline the key objectives of the current EU trade strategy, and with reference to a number of case examples identify areas of potential conflict with the human right to food. The fourth section analyses the objectives and effectiveness of human rights clauses and GSP+ as the key EU trade policy instruments to support human rights. The fifth section summarises reform proposals currently being debated that could lead to a more coherent EU trade policy for human



Image: Indian farmer and his ox. Copyright: Achim Pohl / MISEREOR.