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UN expert calls for fundamental rethink of global trading system

Global trade

22 December 2015

GENEVA (22 December 2015) - The Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order, Alfred de Zayas, deplores that developed countries evaded their Doha development commitments at the World Trade Organization's 10th ministerial conference, held in Nairobi from 15 to 19 December 2015. Although a majority of States meeting in Nairobi wanted to have a clear reaffirmation of the Doha Framework, the opposition of some developed countries prevented the adoption of a consensus on this important point. Instead, he says, developed countries tried to pressure the developing world into agreements that undermine the promotion of the right to development and many provisions of human rights treaties:

"It is time for the World Trade Organization (WTO) to be incorporated into the United Nations system and subordinated to the Purposes and Principles of the United Nations Charter.

Such incorporation pursuant to articles 57 and 63 of the Charter would ensure that the WTO would have to reorient itself in order to make international trade work for human rights and not against them.

It is time for the United Nations General Assembly and for the International Court of Justice to unambiguously state that all international agreements must conform to the UN Charter and that in case of conflict between trade agreements and human rights treaty obligations inter alia under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, it is the human rights treaties that must be given priority.

The motto of WTO critics, Our World is not for sale, means that the WTO corporate model must be radically changed to make it compatible with the imperatives of development and human rights.

The Conference in Nairobi reached some agreements on agricultural export subsides, food aid and other issues. The Information Technology Agreement, covering products like GPS navigation systems, medical products such as magnetic resonance imaging machines, was primarily drafted by high income countries, none of the countries from the Least Developed Country group being represented and only one from the Lower Middle Income group.

The result is an unbalanced agreement that primarily benefits the rich and leave the developing countries empty handed. What would have been sensible and desirable and in keeping with international law commitments to reduce poverty and ensure food security would have been the adoption of a clear statement on the legitimacy of public stockholding for food security that would allow countries to hold food stocks and enable them to deal with food shortages and fluctuations in global market prices. 

Barely three months after the agreement of the Sustainable Development Goals, the WTO meeting in Nairobi failed to deliver on the Doha Development Agenda.  However, pursuant to Goal 17 of the SDG’s the States committed themselves to "Promote a universal, rules-based, open, non-discriminatory and equitable multilateral trading system under the World Trade Organization, including through the conclusion of negotiations under its Doha Development Agenda.

This paradoxical situation highlights the need for a fundamental rethink of the global trading system and the skewed ideological approach taken by some negotiators. One problem with the WTO - beyond Doha and Nairobi - is a vision of “progress” that equates it with the growth of trade volumes and exports. However, if we want to make progress in human rights terms, and not just in dollars, and euros, we must stop considering trade and the growth of trade as an end in itself. Diplomats negotiating trade deals tend to lose sight of the fact that trade for the sake of trade can have devastating human consequences. It is not esoteric art pour l’art. Trade must be a means towards sustainable development and well-being, not just an opportunity for transnationals to generate greater profits.

Once again the developed countries lost the opportunity to put words into action. There is no justification whatever to try to load new issues onto the WTO negotiations before the Doha Development Agenda has been implemented.”

Mr. de Zayas is writing a report to the Human Rights Council on the adverse impact of WTO policies on a democratic and equitable international order, in particular on the realization of human rights for all.


Mr. Alfred de Zayas (United States of America) was appointed as the first Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order by the Human Rights Council, effective May 2012. He is currently professor of international law at the Geneva School of Diplomacy. Learn more, log on to:
The Independent Experts are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For more information and media requests, please contact Mr. Thibaut Guillet (+41 22 917 9389 / [email protected]) or write to [email protected]

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