Trade and investment

Impact on human rights

The global trade and investment regime has a profound impact on human rights, given that the promotion of economic growth in itself may not lead to inclusive, sustainable and equitable development outcomes.

General Assembly resolution 67/171 affirms human rights as a guiding consideration for multilateral trade negotiations. The resolution calls for mainstreaming of the right to development and strengthening of the global partnership for development within international trade institutions.

Trade and investment regimes also overlap and interface with intellectual property, transfer of technology, climate change, and energy regimes. Any evaluation must address the impacts of regime convergences, divergences and intersections on the realisation of human rights.

A human rights-based approach to trade and investment should consider:

  • how States’ obligations under trade/investment law agreements might impact on their ability to fulfil their human rights obligations;
  • what measures States and other actors should be taking to ensure positive impacts and avoid negative impacts;
  • consideration of action that is required to mitigate against any negative impacts that do occur.

To achieve this, existing systems of international trade and investment must transform from engines of economic growth into a multi-purpose framework for the promotion of holistic, people-centred development.

Balancing trade agreements and human rights

There has been widespread criticism of, and mobilisation against, trade agreements and investment treaties, particularly given governments’ tendency to focus on commercial interests in negotiations without taking into account their obligations to address human rights, the environment and development. Evidence indicates that pressures from international trade and investment rules to open borders for goods and services, to create a ‘business-friendly’ environment for foreign direct investment and to strengthen intellectual property rights have often contributed to undermining the protection and realisation of human rights.

The triple global crises of high and volatile food prices, climate change and financial turmoil have heightened public scrutiny of the international economic order. As a result, there is a growing commitment by civil society and by some governments to assess the social and human rights implications of trade and investment policies and agreements – both multilateral and bilateral. This can be evaluated, among other methods, by human rights impact assessments (HRIAs).

Considerable efforts need to be made to articulate the added value of human rights to all constituencies, in particular the World Trade Organization and other actors engaged in the areas of trade and investment. This includes:

  • the right to development and its application;
  • the importance of policy coherence taking into account human rights obligations, standards and principles;
  • the need for human rights impact audits and assessments, flexibilities and exemptions such as in TRIPs;
  • remedies.


Documents relating to Globalisation and Trade and Investment.

Key Messages on Trade and Human Rights (2021)

This document explains the intersection between trade and human rights, including the right to development. It highlights the utility of impact assessments in identifying the positive and adverse human rights implications of trade on human rights and in ensuring that those impacts are adequately considered in the negotiating process and agreements. The document uses the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) as a case study and makes recommendations on taking a human rights based approach to liberalising trade in Africa through the AfCFTA.

Digital Trade in Africa: Implications for Inclusion and Human Rights (2019)

This publication on digital trade in Africa assesses the inclusion and human rights implications of digital trade in the context of trade policy in Africa, which is underpinned by the African Continental Free Trade Area. The document offers unique perspectives on digital trade in Africa and its implications for human rights. It also includes recommendations on what needs to be done in order to fulfil Governments’ commitments to human rights, while at the same time developing national, regional and continental approaches and frameworks to support digital trade in Africa.

The Other Infrastructural Gap: Sustainability; Human Rights and Environmental Perspectives (2018)

This collaborative project with Heinrich Böll Foundation analyses the positives of including human rights and environmental rights dimensions of sustainability explicitly within mega-infrastructure plans and projects, drawing from experience in the energy, transportation and water sectors. The publication includes a dedicated analysis of human rights problems and contradictions within the infrastructure financing and investment regimes.

Globalisation and its impact on the full enjoyment of all human rights (2018)

A report on the impact of globalisation on the full enjoyment of all human rights, including recommendations on ways to address the subject. Common concerns and topics of interest are set out in the form of conclusions and recommendations on how to address the impact of globalisation on the full enjoyment of all human rights.

Baseline Study on the Human Rights Impacts and Implications of Mega-Infrastructure Investment. Geneva. 2017."

This document maps out and catalogues the potential human rights consequences of infrastructure projects as a first step toward a comprehensive human rights analysis of infrastructure investment and policy-making.

Report: The Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) in Africa - A Human Rights Perspective (OHCHR, in collaboration with Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Geneva Office, July 2017)

The report is a culmination of an ex-ante human rights impact assessment of the CFTA. It advocates for the prioritisation of concerns of all members of society and their human rights in the negotiating, drafting and eventual implementation of the CFTA agreement through inclusive, consultative and participatory processes. The report makes policy recommendations focused on the human rights impacts of the CFTA, including complementary and adjustment measures.

OHCHR Thinkpiece: A Turn to Responsible Contracting: Harnessing Human Rights to Transform Investment, January 2016

Prepared for the E15 Task Force on Investment Policy, the focus of this paper is on infusing ethical and normative objectives and processes into state-investor contracts and ways human rights, in particular, can be incorporated. It examines model agreements that provide further guidance on how to devise state-investor contracts to address potential human rights impacts. See also the E15Initiative website.

Publication: Human Rights and World Trade Agreements - Using general exception clauses to protect human rights (HR/PUB/05/5)
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UN High Commissioner for Human Rights participation at the World Leaders Summit – Dialogue II: Inequality - Is the COVID-19 crisis really a game-changer? At UNCTAD XV Barbados: From Inequality and Vulnerability to Prosperity for All, 3 -7 October 2021.

The High Commissioner laid emphasis on the disproportionate impact of the pandemic crisis on women and girls, and called for gender responsive plans to the response and recovery. Reemphasising her call to recognise COVID-19 vaccines as public goods, the High Commissioner called on States to end vaccine nationalism, to enhance international solidarity, and to support the Secretary-General’s call for a global vaccination plan to ensure that vaccines reach 70% of the world population by the first half of 2022. The High Commissioner also called for increased support, including debt relief measures to Least Developed Countries and Small Islands Developing States, to ensure that they maintain the necessary fiscal space to adopt counter-cyclical measures to recover from the crisis.

Multi-stakeholder expert workshop on a potential Human Rights Impact Assessment (HRIA) of the Continental Free Trade Area in Africa (2015-2017), 16-17 April 2015, UNECA Conference Centre, Addis-Ababa, Ethiopia

This workshop aimed to explore possible ways to conduct a human rights impact assessment (HRIA) of the Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) in Africa. Participants discussed an issues paper that was prepared by OHCHR. The meeting was organised jointly by OHCHR, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and Friedrich‐Ebert‐Stiftung (FES). It was decided that UNECA would coordinate a steering group and that as a next step OHCHR would lead a scoping assessment as part of a HRIA of the CFTA. Recommendations were made by workshop participants on how to ensure transparency and participation in the CFTA negotiations, and formally transmitted by UNECA to the African Union Commission (AUC).

17-18 September 2014: “Making the Right Impact?”- OHCHR/FES Expert Workshop on Evaluating Human Rights Impact Assessments (HRIAs) in Trade and Investment Regimes, Bogis-Bossey, Geneva

15 October 2014: UNCTAD World Investment Forum 2014 - Human Rights and Investment Policy Making: Relevance and Integration, OHCHR-UNCTAD Symposium on Business and Human Rights, Geneva

While there is a flurry of activity directed towards bringing company practice in line with the UNGPs, a serious gap exists with respect to government policy making. UNCTAD’s Investment Policy Framework for Sustainable Development (IPFSD) is a welcome starting point in this regard, but more work is required to distill the meaning and implications of the UNGPs for a range of governmental and market actors.
October 2014: UNCTAD World Investment Forum 2014 - Reforming the International Investment Regime

At the 2014 International Investment Agreements (IIA) Conference, more than 50 high-level representatives from governments, including ministers, senior business representatives, international and civil society organisations, convened in Geneva to address the challenges arising from IIAs and to consider ways to reform the IIA regime. The meeting sketched the contours of a roadmap for reform of the IIA regime and called upon UNCTAD to provide a multilateral platform for engagement on investment policy issues.

September 2010: UNITAR High Level Panel on Human Rights and Trade

The former High Commissioner joined Pascal Lamy, the former Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), senior diplomats and trade officials as well as experts from academia and civil society at an event organized by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) in Geneva to discuss the linkages between trade and human rights.