Promoting Peace, Culture and Human Rights Through World Trade

Published on 2nd July 2019

Trade, culture, peace and human rights are inextricably linked. The exchange of not only goods and services but also of ideas and knowledge has fundamentally shaped the peace, prosperity and culture of our societies since the dawn of time. The Nile was the world’s first extensive trade network which saw the imports and exports of goods flow along the river and thereby allowed ancient Egypt to become one of the most prosperous ancient civilizations in history.

Under the Han Dynasty in China, we saw the development of the iconic Silk Road. As the first global trading route connecting the East to the West, the Silk Road enabled the confluence of cultures, religions and goods. Silk, spices, and textiles from China flowed westward while wool, linen and gold from the Middle East flowed eastwards creating a cross-cultural diffusion of traditions, technologies and religion. The Silk Road helped spread Buddhism throughout central Asia where it is still widely practiced today. These historic trade routes have had lasting effects on both the development and culture of our modern day societies. In addition to shaping culture, trade can cultivate and strengthen world peace.

Trade promotes peace in three distinct ways. First, trade promotes peace through enhanced communication, transnational linkages and mutual interest that fosters a greater understanding and cooperation among nations. Second, trade increases the economic integration between countries, which gives them a tangible interest in each other’s economic wellbeing. Countries are less likely to go war with each other if their growth and prosperity are interdependent. The notion of peace through trade and economic integration was the motive behind the establishment of what is now the European Union (EU). After all the EU began as a common market for steel and coal, which sought to integrate the economies of its members to prevent another war. Third, trade helps to promote peace by generating economic growth and improving living standards. Over the last thirty years, the free flow of trade and investment through predictably open markets have enabled the rapid growth of emerging economies, in particular China and India. In doing so, trade helped lift over one billion people out of extreme poverty and secure basic human rights for vulnerable populations. In essence, trade can support the concrete realisation of human rights.

The opposite is also true; countries whose economies are weak are more prone to war. History has shown us that economic injustice threatens social stability, provoking political upheaval, violence and even war. Improving the livelihoods of marginalized countries and communities through inclusive trade can be an effective means through which to restore and rebuild peace.

Trade can undeniably be used as a force for good via the promotion of culture, peace, and in securing human rights through improved living standards. Though, we do not have to look too far back in history to see that intersect between trade and human rights is complex and, at times, paradoxical.

To contextualise this tension, let’s take the example of Bangladesh’s textile industry. Bangladesh’s ready-made garment sector accounts for 80% of the country’s exports and employs over 4 million people, nearly three-quarters of whom are women. It is estimated that the garment industry indirectly supports an additional 25 million people, and has played a pivotal role in advancing human freedoms and opportunities through job creation and poverty reduction.

However, at the same time, the textile industry suffers from poor working and safety conditions and cases of contemporary forced labour. This all came to a head in 2013 when the Rana Plaza in Dhaka, collapsed, resulting in the deaths of over a thousand people. The devastating loss of life is a sad reminder that human rights and trade can still come into conflict today.

One thing remains clear; more open trade cannot come at the expense of human rights. At the same time, protecting rights cannot be used for purely protectionist purposes that would preserve the economic rights of the few while condemning the many to weaker living standards.

To better manage this tension we need to see action and coherence at three levels. The trade community must design trade policies and agreements in a way that respects and safeguards labour, environmental and human rights standards and takes into account how trade policy affects different groups, upholding the principle of “non-discrimination” which is central to trade policies.

Since the 1990’s, we have seen an increasing number of Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) that have labour provisions. This is a step in the right direction as these provisions have included grievance mechanisms for examining labour complaints, which can help enforce and strengthen international labour standards.

The 2017 Buenos Aires Declaration on Women and Trade is another good example of a rights-based approach to international trade. The Declaration signed by over 120 WTO member states and observers, recognizes that trade policies affect women and men differently and calls upon members to incorporate a gendered lens into trade policy and agreements. But we also need better coherence at the international level; better coherence between the governance of trade, labour rights, and human rights at the international level. And all of these communities seat here in Geneva!

Making trade policies inclusive and including labour provisions in FTAs are important first steps. However, if we use trade instruments alone, we will have no chance at achieving the SDGs. Trade policies must be coupled with strong domestic policies to ensure human rights are respected. And this has a lot to do with fairer taxation, ensuring equality between men, women, LGBTs, domestic labour laws, education and healthcare systems, all of which are in the hands of domestic actors.

Coherence is key. And coherence is what the Sustainable Development Goals are about. Development agencies, NGOs and civil society actors also have a critical role to play in the promotion of human rights, peace and prosperity.

The International Trade Centre (ITC) is playing its part by working to promote peace and prosperity through the facilitation of “good trade”. ITC helps micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) from developing countries connect to international markets. We focus on MSMEs because they employ the vast majority of people in most countries. By helping businesses at bottom of the economic pyramid trade, they in turn, become more productive, create new jobs and raise incomes, particularly for women and young people. At the end of the day peace is more likely to occur when people have economic opportunities.

Let me share with you one of our flagship initiatives, the “Ethical Fashion” initiative in Afghanistan, which aims to promote peace and inclusive growth through trade.  Several decades of conflict devastated Afghanistan’s economy and left it with one of the world’s largest diasporas of displaced people. Since 2002, more than 5.2 million Afghan refugees have voluntarily returned home and are looking to rebuild their lives. Employment generation, especially for young people and rural populations, is therefore critical both for social stability and for giving potential or returnee migrants an incentive to stay.

ITC’s Ethical Fashion Initiative is working in Afghanistan to improve the livelihoods of thousands of artisans and farmers in the fashion and fine foods sectors by connecting them to lucrative markets abroad. The traditions and culture of Afghanistan at the service of improving Afghans lives.

In its first year of implementation, the initiative has contributed to creating jobs and raising incomes for close to 300 artisans and farmers, many of them returned migrants and internally displaced people, with approximately 1,000 people in the broader supplier network benefiting from the sales. This same initiative is also active in Mali, Burkina Faso, Haiti, Kenya and many other countries.

I have spoken about the role of trade policies, governments and development agencies, but just as importantly, is the role of the business community to promote peace and champion human rights across their value chains. Human rights must be at the heart of business strategies.

This is as true for mom and pop stores as it is for multinational companies. Ensuring that human rights are respected throughout companies’ value chain is not only the moral thing to do, but it is also becoming a market necessity. Consumers around the world are increasingly demanding ethically sourced goods and are less tolerant of human rights abuses.

A second positive trend is the growing number of human rights standards for businesses. In 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Council endorsed the ‘UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights’, which helps states and companies prevent, address human rights abuses committed in business operations. Now that there are well-identified guidelines, we must hold both companies and governments to account.

As we move forward, we must remember that the concepts of trade, human rights, culture and peace are interrelated, and that hard work will be required to make them mutually supportive.

To conclude, I will leave you with three key takeaways. First, trade does not have to come at the cost of human rights. On the contrary, if properly designed and made coherent with other international areas and with good domestic policies, it can help translate human rights into improved lives.  Second, the trade, human rights, culture, peace nexus requires coherence. A whole of the government approach, a whole of society at large and a whole of the international system. Third, coherence is better served through strong multilateral cooperation rather than unilateral action. International cooperation anchored in global institutions, embedded in multilateral rules with conflict resolution mechanisms can provide a much needed support for peace and respect for human rights. This is the challenge ahead of us.

By Arancha González

The International Trade Centre Executive Director.


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