Trade agreements worldwide have increasingly included clauses which require the parties to meet certain conditions on human rights. These may include rights relating to labour conditions, political participation, environmental issues and standards in relation to specific goods.
Currently the EU negotiates trade agreements with non-EU members on behalf of the UK and other EU member states. It has a wide range of agreements in place. They tend to contain a general obligation to uphold human rights; for example, as set out in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and/or the European Convention on Human Rights. The UK has supported the EU’s approach. The Labour Party has also supported the inclusion of human rights clauses in trade agreements.
One of the Government’s main objectives in leaving the EU is to enable the UK to pursue an independent trade policy. It has said that this will provide “an opportunity to explore how we can most appropriately use free trade agreements (FTAs) to pursue broader international objectives while recognising the need for a balanced and proportionate approach”. In February 2019, the then Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox, said that the UK was resisting attempts by some countries to reduce the human rights provisions in trade agreements as the UK moved from EU to independent trade agreements. In July 2019, the Minister for the Middle East, Andrew Murrison, discussed whether any future trade agreement with China may or may not include human rights clauses.
In March 2019, the Joint Committee on Human Rights published a report on human rights in international agreements. It said that there was “a strong case for requiring minimum standard processes, practices and clauses to protect and promote human rights in all international agreements”. It called for greater parliamentary scrutiny of trade agreements, and for negotiating teams to have access to human rights expertise. In its response, the Government committed to a more extensive scrutiny process for trade agreements. However, it rejected the call for a standardised approach to human rights in trade agreements, preferring to maintain flexibility.
Not all commentators agree that trade agreements should include human rights clauses. The arguments against them include concerns about protectionism, and/or that they are a way of imposing one country’s values on another. Opponents argue the approach may disadvantage poorer countries for whom greater human rights may be costly to implement. It has also been suggested that trade agreements may not be the best means to address human rights issues, and that the approach is “new, unproven and not well understood”.