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Refereed articles

Free trade or just trade? The World Trade Organisation, human rights and development (Part 1)

Cephas Lumina critically examines the role of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). In recent years, it is noted, the organisation’s agenda of trade liberalisation, its perceived lack of accountability and insensitivity to human rights have attracted intense criticism.

It has been asserted that provisions of WTO agreements concerning agricultural trade and intellectual property directly affect the ability of governments to fulfil their human rights obligations. Conversely, supporters of the WTO argue that by expanding global trade the organisation assists in raising living standards. While it is generally acknowledged that trade has an important role in improving livelihoods, studies indicate that trade liberalisation has not necessarily achieved this result for many WTO members. The author assesses these claims from a human rights perspective and explores the relationship between trade, human rights and development. The article sketches the history and functions of the WTO, discusses the linkages between trade liberalisation, human rights and development, and assesses the human rights obligations of the WTO. It notes that most WTO Member States have assumed legal obligations through ratification of universal human rights treaties and concludes that the WTO’s trade liberalisation agenda should be more responsive to human rights.

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