The Link Between Trade & Human Rights

The Link Between Trade & Human Rights

Matthew Cline

Trade and human rights have an intertwined relationship, as human rights often influence the prevalence, scope, or availability of an international trade agreement. Most of the world’s economically dominant countries use human rights language in their trade agreements. Human rights have permeated so much into trade that over 75% of the world’s governments now have trade agreements that include human rights provisions.[1] While these agreements aim to devote more resources to human rights enforcement, however, their actual effect on international human rights is contested.

The World Trade Organization (“WTO”) generally advocates for a free trade agenda between countries, in which governments do not discriminate against imports with tariffs. Despite this promotion, the WTO allows countries to use trade as a tool to achieve non-trade objectives, most notably in human rights violations.[2] In response to grave human rights violations or political tensions between governments, trade is often a coercive weapon to improve a violating country’s human rights conditions through unilateral trade agreements. These trade agreements can be divided into two broad categories: inwardly directed and outwardly directed measures.[3] Inward trade measures protect human rights within the implementing country itself, while outward measures concern another country’s human rights violations.[4] Most often, outward trade measures are in the form of sanctions; a unilateral, coercive measure taken in reaction to an unlawful act—often using trade and finance as a penalty.[5] Sanctions are further distinguished between country-based and product-based sanctions. Product-based sanctions, like the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (“UFLPA”), discriminate against goods based on the manufacturing process, including forced labor.[6]

Many countries have realized the useful nexus between trade and human rights to attempt to enact change in foreign regimes.[7] The use of sanctions and other forms of unilateral trade agreements to increase transparency regarding human rights violations in foreign supply chains has steadily increased in popularity since World War II, most notably in the United States and the European Union.[8] These countries often impose sanctions for a variety of other reasons, including putting pressure on countries to embrace democracy, punish regimes, and to ensure that domestic companies are compliant with universal values in their global supply chains.[9] The UFLPA is a tailored sanction, targeting the human violations against Uyghur minorities that occur in the production of goods in Xinjiang.[10] The UFLPA aims to render global supply chains devoid of human rights violations.[11] Since enforcement began in June 2022, the rebuttable presumption of the UFLPA forces American companies to identify sources for all of their Chinese raw materials and parts in detail, as well as ensure that their supply chains do not include products from Xinjiang.[12] The sanction, however, also follows the theory of regime punishment for human rights violations through trade.[13] The US has already imposed import restrictions on human violations from all countries since 1930,[14] even revisiting the topic before the Xinjiang Crisis came to light to close loopholes for imports produced by forced labor.[15] While the UFLPA encourages enforcement and transparency of prohibiting human rights violations, it also serves as a way to explicitly punish the Chinese government for its actions in Xinjiang, as well as trade tensions that have persisted since the turn of the century.

Sanctions and other unilateral trade agreements are also differentiated by the targets of sanctions by an imposing government. The United States generally follows a blanket sanctions method, banning all products within a given description.[16] While there is limited evidence on the effectiveness of these types of import bans at reducing forced labor in the long-term supply chain,[17] these sanctions contribute to a decrease in individual states’ human rights violations.[18] Blanket sanctions against products in a country are often used to target opposed policies and punish the targeted state for such policies.[19] These sanctions, however, have only successfully changed policies about one-third of the time.[20] Sanctioned surveys, however, are mostly targeted at overall regime changes.

These sanctions, which are country-specific rather than product-specific, are exemplified in former US sanctions against Myanmar. The military junta in Myanmar cracked down on student protesters in 1988 and refused to recognize Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratic election in 1990, detaining her for twenty-one years.[21] These events led to tightened sanctions by the United States, banning any new investments in Myanmar in 1997 and placing a general ban on imports from Myanmar in 2003.[22]  These sanctions contributed to democratic uprisings in Myanmar in 2007 but were unsustainable, as the military seized control of the country again after a coup in 2021.[23] Blanket sanctions against the Burmese junta, were targeted against all products in the country and aimed at removing an entire regime, a much larger task than human rights violations like those in Xinjiang, in which a specific ethnic group is targeted by the state.[24] A case study of country-specific sanctions by the United States against South Africa offers insight to the long-term benefits blanket sanctions could have in eliminating human rights violations abroad.[25] In 1985, the Reagan administration imposed limited country-specific sanctions against South Africa for its government’s racial restrictions and apartheid system, banning the import of South African goods and investments.[26] South African sanctions, along with boycotts of sporting events and global public outcry, contributed to the release of activist Nelson Mandela from twenty-seven years of prison in 1990 and the later repeal of most apartheid laws in following years.[27] Under the popular method of general sanctions, those that target specific human rights violations rather than entire regimes may be more effective in creating long-term enforcement.

The European Union takes a more targeted approach to sanctions, a notable difference from product- or country-based sanctions adopted by countries like the United States. Targeted sanctions— also known as smart sanctions—are placed on individuals or corporate entities with the objective of applying coercive pressure on transgressing parties, leaders, and their network of supporters.[28] Targeted sanctions are done to minimize effects to the civilian population and are often in the form of travel bans, arms embargoes, and asset freezes of specifically designated individuals and companies.[29] The EU adopted targeted sanctions after negative humanitarian consequences provoked by the United Nations Security Council (“UNSC”) sanctions against Yugoslavia, Haiti, and Iraq.[30] Whereas general blanket sanctions make no distinction between policymakers and the general population of a given country, targeted sanctions apply pressure on specific individuals without harming the civilian population.[31] These sanctions, however, are often considered less impactful in mitigating human rights violations, with a lower success rate than general economic sanctions.[32] This could, however, be attributed to the fact that there are many more targeted sanctions than general, and not every subject of such sanctions are figures that could lead to a total dissolution of certain human rights violations.


[1] See Susan Ariel Aaronson & Jean Pierre Chauffour, The Wedding of Trade and Human Rights: Marriage of Convenience or Permanent Match?, World Trade Org., (last visited Feb. 6, 2023).

[2] Jenny Schultz & Rachel Ball, Trade As a Weapon? The WTO and Human Rights-Based Trade Measures 42 Deakin L. Rev. 41, 42 (2007).

[3] Id. at 43–44.

[4] Id.

[5] See Zaker Ahmad, Unilateral Trade Sanctions to Secure Compliance with the Common Concern Doctrine, in WTO Law and Trade Policy Reform for Low-Carbon Technology Diffusion 240, 241 (2021).

[6] See Schultz & Ball, supra note 2, at 44.

[7] See id.

[8] Taku Nemoto, Supply Chains, International Trade and Human Rights, 46 EU–Asia Project 1, 1 (2022). See Ahmad, supra note 5, at 243.

[9] See Nemoto, supra note 8, at 2.

[10] See Sarah H. Cleveland, Human Rights Sanctions and International Trade: A Theory of Compatibility, 5 J. Int’l Econ. L. 133, 139 (2002).

[11] See Marti Flacks & Madeleine Songy, The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act Goes into Effect, Ctr. for Strategic & Int’l Stud. (June 27, 2022),

[12] Nemoto, supra note 8, at 3.

[13]  See Nemoto, supra note 8, at 2.

[14] See Smoot–Hawley Tariff Act, 19 U.S.C. § 1307 (1930).

[15] See Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015, Pub. L. 114–125 § 910 (2015).

[16] See Schultz & Ball, supra note 2, at 43–44.

[17] Irene Pietropaoli et al., Effectiveness of Forced Labour Import Bans, Pol’y & Evidence Ctr. (July 2021),

[18] Buhm-Suk Baek, Economic Sanctions Against Human Rights Violations (Cornell L. Sch. Inter-Univ. Graduate Student Conf. Papers, Paper No. 11, 2008). But see Dursun Peksen, Better or Worse? The Effect of Economic Sanctions on Human Rights, 46 J. Peace Rsch. 59 (2009) (arguing economic sanctions do not contribute to effective change and cause harm to civilians in affected countries); Kristoffer Fretland Øygarden, The Effect of Sanctions on Human Rights: Assessing the Impact of Economic Sanctions on Human Rights Violations in Targeted Countries (May 2017) (Master’s dissertation, University of Oslo) (finding economic sanctions often fail to influence state governments to eradicate programs that contribute to human rights violations).

[19] Iryna Bogdanova, The Legality of Unilateral Economic Sanctions Imposed to Redress Human Rights Violations, in Unilateral Sanctions in International Law and the Enforcement of Human Rights 223, 224 n.1243 (2022)

[20] Michael Ewing-Chow, First Do No Harm: Myanmar Trade Sanctions and Human Rights, 5 Nw. J. Int’l Hum. Rts 153, 153 (2007).

[21] Lindsay Maizland, Myanmar’s Troubled History: Coups, Military Rule, and Ethnic Conflict, Council on Foreign Rels. (last updated Jan. 31, 2022, 11:00 am),

[22] See Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003, Pub. L. 108–61 (2003); Schultz & Ball, supra note 2, at 44–45. See generally Ewing-Chow, supra note 20 (providing historical background of Burmese political history and international sanctions imposed against the military junta in Myanmar).

[23] Maizland, supra note 21.

[24]  See Schultz & Ball, supra note 2, at 44 (explaining that product-based sanctions are easier to implement).

[25] See Baek, supra note 18, at 50–51.

[26] Id.

[27] See Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, Pub. L. 99–440 (1986); Baek, supra note 18, at 50–51. See generally Bronwen Manby, South Africa: The Impact of Sanctions, 46 J. Int’l Affs. 193 (1992) (providing historical background on the South African apartheid system of racial segregation and sanctions’ impact on the dissolution of apartheid in the early 1990s).

[28] Mikael Eriksson, Targeting Peace: Understanding UN & EU Targeted Sanctions (2011).

[29] Gary Clyde Hufbauer & Barbara Oegg, Targeted Sanctions: A Policy Alternative?, Peterson Inst. for Int’l Econ. (2000).

[30] Alexandra Hofer, The Proportionality of Unilateral “Targeted” Sanctions: Whose Interests Should Count?, 89 Nordic J. Int’l L. 399, 403 (2020); For a comprehensive background on the UNSC sanctions in Yugoslavia and Haiti and their negative impacts on human rights in both countries, see W.M. Resiman & D.L. Stevick, The Applicability of International Law Standards to United Nations Economic Sanctions Programmes, 9 Eur. J. Int’l L. 86, 112–24 (1998); For a discussion on the 1993 UNSC sanctions against Saddam Hussain for the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, providing a background understanding of the events that led to the Iraq War in 2003, see J. Miller & K. Müller, Sanctions of Mass Destruction, 78 Foreign Affs. 3 (1999).

[31] See Eriksson, supra note 28.

[32] Eriksson, supra note 28.