Monday, March 2, 2009

International Trade, WTO and China Human Rights

A few days after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's hopeful and celebrated official visit to China, the U.S. State Department issued its annual report on China's human rights record.  In it, the U.S. criticises China for silencing dissent and oppressing ethnic minorities.  

Not to be outdone by the U.S., China hit back with its own Human Rights Record of the United States in 2008, enumerating a laundry list of rights violations committed by the United States government.

As a law student who wants to carve out a living by building a China-related law practice, I refuse to be drawn into this "p___ing contest."  However, that is not to say that human rights and law practice related to China are not related.  Quite on the contrary, I learned over the weekend that there is a correlation between the two.

During the UT International Law Journal China Law Symposium, Professor Patricia Hansen at the University of Texas Law School spoke about the connection between international trade, the WTO, and human rights, and the possible ramifications that this connection may have for China.  From a historical perspective, before China joined the WTO, the U.S. Congress had an annual review of China's human rights record in the 1990s, and thus a chance to publicly shame China before the Congress would grant China the coveted Most Favored Nation Status for the purpose of international trade.  In that sense, there was a direct correlation between China's behavior on human rights and carrots that the U.S. held on trade.  However, after China joined the WTO, the U.S., essentially, lost its only effective leverage to "whip" China into shape with respect to human rights because China did not agree nor did it commit to any provisions regarding human rights in its negotiations for the WTO membership.

Professor Hansen posits that the disconnect between international trade and human rights abuses/concerns extends beyond China.  Therefore, there should be an international solution that binds all players in international trade.  To reach that goal, Professor Hansen explained that trade policymakers have attempted the following two approaches: (1) weave human rights protection into the Doha Round; and (2) empower and implore the Appellate Body of the WTO to use human rights protection as a factor in deciding trade disputes.

However, problems exist for both approaches.  First, developing countries are unlikely to and have refused to agree to any kind of human rights protection provisions as envisioned by the developed countries because human rights is just another excuse for the latter to discriminate against the former and impose unreasonable demands.  Second, the Appellate Body of the WTO is fiercely textual in its application of the relevant law; and hence, absent textual authorization, it is unlikely to step beyond its commitment to the WTO agreements.  Given these hurdles, it seems that human rights protection and international trade do not really mesh well in the context of creating a binding obligation on trading nations in the WTO.

Professor Hansen does see hope on the horizon though in light of some incremental developments on this very subject.  First, international negotiations have resulted in a narrow exception to the strict prohibition of compulsory licensing of pharmaceutical technology (patents) by member countries.  Where there is a human health pandemic or disaster, member countries like Brazil and India are permitted to appropriate patents held by foreigners in order to protect the right to protect public health and access to medical treatment.  Second, in a  case regarding sea turtles decided by the WTo Appellate Body, the Court decided that laws implemented by the U.S. in protecting sea turtles to the detriment of other member countries are fully in compliance with the WTO rules and consistent with relevant WTO decisions.  Based on the above, access to medical treatment & the protection of public health as well the the protection seas turtle, both of which are beyond the traditional notions of human rights, might herald a new direction in linking trade with human rights protection.  [One might think that protecting human rights (however one interprets it) is arguably more important than the protection of endangered sea turtles even though it is also arguable that some sea turtles are more lovable than some humans.]

These developments led Professor Hansen to see the possibility that the Appellate Body might gradually read more human rights protection into trade disputes between nations where necessary and appropriate despite its strictly textual approach to interpreting the WTO rules.

I do think that human rights have a part to play in international trade and vice versa. Undoubtedly, China's entry to the WTO has resulted in dramatic changes in the Chinese society.  Millions of Chinese enjoy more material wealth, and the society has grown more open and integrated to the rest of the world.  More Chinese have the basic necessities to sustain their lives, and the government is growing more responsive to people's fundamental survival needs (public health, transportation in the countryside) (some might argue that this is not a result of the WTO, but I'd humbly submit that there is a connection.)

Because of the transformitive power of international trade to trading nations, human rights could certainly play a role in improving the lives of citizens of those nations.  However, in order to help developing nations stomach the idea of international standards on human rights, the following limitations might facilitate and/or accelerate the linking of the two:

1.  Integrate international customary law on human rights, rather than human rights standards set forth by the developed nations.  International customary law is already recognized and practiced by many nations, and it does not  impose additional, new obligations on developing nations. 

2. The WTO Appellate Body should require evidence of specific violations relevant to a trade dispute, rather than simply relying on allegations of general violations by a certain nation.  This requirement imposes a heavier burden of proof on the complaining nation, and it helps the Appellate Body to fashion appropriate and proportionate penalties for actual and specific violations of international human rights obligations. 

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