Rights redux: the return of human rights at the WTO

- By Margulis, Matias E.


The conventional wisdom is that human rights have long been off the negotiating agenda at the World Trade Organization (WTO). The failed attempt by Northern states to include a 'social clause' in WTO rules during the late 1990s and early 2000s is often cited as having foreclosed bringing human rights to bear in multilateral trade negotiations. This article challenges this traditional view, demonstrating that states are mobilizing human rights at the WTO to shape current global trade rulemaking. Moreover, in sharp contrast to the prevailing assumption that developed countries are the primary champions of human rights in the trade regime and developing countries the opponents, I show that developing countries have in fact become key protagonists in marshalling human rights at the WTO. To illustrate these claims, I examine how developing countries mobilize human rights norms, principles and discourse to shape global trade rulemaking in two of the most contentious issues in recent WTO negotiations: The use of public food stockholding for food security purposes and a TRIPS waiver to ensure access to COVID-19 vaccines.