Skip to content Skip to navigation


July 15, 2000


NEEDED: A bill of rights for the trade regime
Robert A. Senser



Three cheers for Sharon K. Hom’s article, “Playing by whose rules and for what ends?” in the Spring 2000 issue of China Rights Forum. To her credit, she raises basic questions about the values and goals of the World Trade Organization (WTO), and thereby challenges assumptions widely taken for granted by all sides in debates about the WTO.

Her key warning is against unthinkingly embracing “the rhetoric of the trade regime, such as invoking phrases like the rule of law, or playing by the rules, without being clear what we mean or without a critical understanding of what the rules are and whether they are rules that support [the human rights] cause.” Instead, she says, we should be reexamining the “politics of the [trade] rules, asking whom they really help, as well as the normative question of what rules we want to see - the existing trade rules are not the only option of how we might envision a global order.”

This reexamination is needed, she emphasizes, “if we are not to give up on the goals and values of equity and social justice necessary for a world beyond our current divided one of haves and have-nots.” And such a reexamination is not utopian, she adds: “As women’s rights activists and the development movement have demonstrated, it is possible to shift and change basic concepts and visions of the way we want the world to be.”

I would suggest adding another dimension to that reexamination: a challenge to the basic assumption that WTO is only about trade. Actually, the very name WTO is a misnomer, since, unlike its predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the WTO has a global reach far beyond trade. Its first Director-General, Renato Ruggiero, made that clear when he said in 1996, shortly after the WTO’s founding: “We are writing the constitution of a single global economy.”

That is a radical departure from the original scope of GATT, the trade mandate of which was limited to the traditional category of goods—that is, tangible items ranging from socks to earth movers. Today the scope of the WTO’s responsibilities covers not only those in GATT but about 60 other agreements that run to some 30,000 pages of legal text.

One gets a hint of that much broader scope from the WTO web site ( Under the heading of “WTO trade topics,” it lists not only the traditional category of goods but also new ones: services, intellectual property, government procurement, investment, competition, electronic commerce, the environment and development. Even the “goods” category snares some non-traditional additions: state trading enterprises, for example, and “sanitary and phytosanitary measures (food safety, animal and plant health and safety).”

Not a word about human rights, of course. Why not? Because, as Professor Hom points out, the world “trading regime,” as embodied in the WTO, is regarded as completely separate from the global “human rights regime.” But in fact they do have some common ground, if surreptitious, in at least two Web-listed areas of the WTO’s mandate: intellectual property and investment. In both areas the WTO uses its muscle to protect the human right to own property.

True, the right to own property, and to have that right protected, is not widely hailed as a human right. But check the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, the same year that GATT was born. Article 17 reads:


“1. Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others. 2. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.”

True also, the United States and other Western governments believe that the WTO mandate to protect property rights is not strong enough. As a step toward strengthening it, they sought to have the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which represents the world’s 29 industrial nations, adopt a 140-page agreement called the Multilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI). If adopted, the MAI would have greatly strengthened the rights of foreign investors within OECD countries, and paved the way for the WTO to do the same globally. But the initiative collapsed in 1999 after a world-wide NGO campaign against it. Even some developing countries denounced it as an instrument “to give rich-world investors the upper hand” (to quote the Economist). The demonstrations in Seattle late last year had a mass base because of popular support not just in favor of having the WTO pay attention to the human rights of workers, but also in opposition to having it strengthen the rights of property owners in the global economy.

Owning real estate in a foreign country has always been risky. The risk multiplies for the owners of today’s many complex forms of property - such as computer programs, satellites, securities, industrial designs and joint ventures—in countries that have little or no legislation or experience dealing with those types of ownership. Bilateral agreements (such as the one signed in December between the United States and China), detailed as they may be about protecting the property rights of foreigners, no longer suffice. Because of the competitive nature of the global economy, bilateral agreements are more easily violated if competing nations do not respect the same rules. Hence the need for multilateral agreements enforced by a multilateral agency. (The name planned for the WTO, before its birth, was the Multilateral Trade Organization.)

Clearly the right to property does need reasonable protection globally. But it is an act of global discrimination to single out the right to property, elevate it to a paramount human right, and exclude all other human rights. Like every right, this one is not absolute; it needs to be conditioned by other human rights.

I can understand why that idea is repulsive to people running the “trade regime.” It complicates their lives to become involved in issues such as preventing the recruitment of children into the global labor force. The iron curtain erected to separate international trade from international human rights spares people in commerce from such obligations. But the world is changing, and they would be wise to change with it.

In their domestic economies most modern industrial nations have over time learned that keeping human exploitation in check by protecting both capital and labor, both money and people, can actually lead to unprecedented human progress. The global economy has yet to learn that lesson. It is a vast new frontier with boundless new opportunities for the accumulation of wealth and power, but still largely lawless except in safeguarding the interests of the powerful in both rich and poor countries. These private and public elites have a good deal going, and they mobilize their intellectual and financial resources to maintain and fortify the special rights they enjoy.

The odds of their succeeding are diminishing. Blame (or credit) globalization. It opens the eyes of people to the immense potential for progress inherent in the global economy. This is not just a pocketbook issue, involving the gap in wealth and income between the haves and have-nots. It is also a freedom and power issue, involving the gap in rights between the haves and have-nots.

Take China. As part of the price of participating massively in the global marketplace, China has granted foreigners rights they have not enjoyed since the colonial era. American and other foreign businesses are free to form Chambers of Commerce and other organizations to advance their common interests. Why are China’s workers prevented from doing the same? In various ways, foreigners have the right to petition the government at local and national levels of the People’s Republic. Why are China’s citizens jailed for doing likewise?

Globalization creates dichotomies of that sort, and the rules governing globalization cannot long ignore them.

This is not to say that integrating human rights into the global trade regime is an easy task. It is not. But pretending that there is an impenetrable barrier between international trade and human rights is an ostrich-like posture. During a four-week trip to East Asia in April and May, I interviewed dozens of ordinary workers, men and women, young and old, who, contrary to a common impression in the media, do not want to stop the world and get off. At most, they want it to slow down a bit, so that they can get on.

They do not see two “regimes”—one for trade and one for their rights. Whenever we accept that bifurcation, we lend our support to a framework that justifies the status quo. A separate “trade regime” provides a conceptual and political basis for the distortions and injustices of the global economy. It rationalizes a narrow focus for human concerns. It promotes the interests and rights of only a selected group in the global economy, those already positioned to benefit from its wonders. But the need is for inclusion. The two-regime paradigm is inherently exclusionary in its rhetoric and its practice. It needs to be exposed and attacked as putting an artificial ceiling on the potential of globalization.

The WTO’s first Director-General’s boast about writing the constitution for the global economy has not been repeated by his successors. But when you take into account all the rules adopted by the WTO and its sister international institutions to govern the world economy, his claim is not far off base. A global “constitution” is indeed emerging, and it desperately needs a bill of rights covering more than investors.

Robert A. Senser is the editor of Human Rights for Workers, published on-line at, generally bi-weekly. He writes from his home in northern Virginia.

CHINA RIGHTS FORUM continues its series raising questions and ideas you will not see much of in the mainstream media about the World Trade Organization and what China’s entry to the body will mean. We welcome more contributions to this debate!

Warning: Cannot modify header information - headers already sent by (output started at /var/www/ in /var/www/ on line 1501

Warning: Cannot modify header information - headers already sent by (output started at /var/www/ in /var/www/ on line 1505

Warning: Cannot modify header information - headers already sent by (output started at /var/www/ in /var/www/ on line 1505

Warning: Cannot modify header information - headers already sent by (output started at /var/www/ in /var/www/ on line 1505
Error | Human Rights in China 中国人权 | HRIC


The website encountered an unexpected error. Please try again later.