Background trade policy

International trade policy seeks to enable the easiest possible access to national markets. The corresponding free trade agenda often leaves weaker countries and disadvantaged segments of populations by the wayside. Through its engagement on this topic, Public Eye works towards the goal of fairer globalisation and advocates for a Swiss trade policy that better respects human rights.

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Trade policy and human rights

Every country must treat recognising, upholding and promoting human rights as tasks of paramount importance; respecting human rights is not only a moral duty but an obligation under international law, which applies across national borders. Countries’ trade policies must also adhere to them, meaning that in a sense, trade policy is intrinsically linked to human rights policy.

More infos

  • Human rights impact assessments

    “Global trade must further the rights of people. Therefore human rights must be factored in to all decisions relating to trade policy.” – Public Eye voiced this demand over ten years ago in its document ‘Human Rights Economy’.

    The demand is more relevant than ever because bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) contain provisions that go further than those of multilateral agreements, increasing the chances of conflicts arising between trade and human rights. This is particularly the case when it comes to FTAs with countries that are most vulnerable to violations of their economic, social and cultural human rights.

    For example, if the import tariffs levied by countries of the South are significantly reduced, it can remove important sources of income that they urgently need to support the poorest and most vulnerable sections of society. This negatively impacts these people’s right to social security, proper nutrition or education. 

    Furthermore, FTAs often require stronger intellectual property rights. This demand can have negative consequences on the right to healthcare, which is guaranteed under international law (see our german documentation ‘human rights are not up for negotiation’).

    A call for prior human rights impact assessments

    For years, UN human rights bodies have pointed to the danger of human rights violations associated with FTAs. In its latest Universal Period Review (UPR) published in 2012, the UN Human Rights Council suggested that Switzerland undertake an assessment of the possible consequences of its foreign trade policy and investment agreements on the economic, social and cultural rights of the populations of its partner countries.

    Human rights impact assessments make it possible to identify the potential ramifications of FTAs on the human rights situation in partner countries. Moreover, they help to shed light on typically opaque negotiation processes, ensure that conflicts of interest are addressed in a more democratic manner and subject decisions taken to public scrutiny.

    Public Eye has been calling on SECO (the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs), the Swiss government body responsible for trade, to carry out human rights impact assessments – before negotiations on a new FTA are concluded.

    Public Eye joined up with international partner organisations because SECO persistently refused to carry out prior human rights impact assessments. In a comprehensive study, they analysed the possible ramifications of stricter plant variety protection standards – one of Switzerland’s standard demands in FTAs – on the human rights situation of smallholder subsistence farmers.

  • Palm oil

    © Brot für alle (BFA)

    Lipstick, baby food, cleaning products, pizza dough, candles, vegetable stock, vol-au-vents, shower gel, crunchy muesli, face cream, glacé: nowadays palm oil is an ingredient in many everyday products and has become the most consumed vegetable oils in the world in a short space of time.

    Some 85% of palm oil comes from two south-Asian countries: Malaysia and Indonesia. In Malaysia alone, over the past 30 years the area covered by palm oil plantations has grown on average by an equivalent to 500 football fields – every day.

    The consequences (in german) of the constantly increasing production of palm oil are devastating: it leads to widespread destruction of rainforests, the forced displacement of families of farmers and violations of human and labour rights – including forced labour and debt bondage – occur repeatedly on the plantations themselves.

    Switzerland is in negotiations with both Malaysia and Indonesia within the framework of EFTA free trade agreements. Both countries are calling on Switzerland and the EFTA countries to reduce or even remove import tariffs on palm oil. This would further boost consumption of palm oil, creating additional incentives to ramp up production.

    Broad resistance bears first fruit

    In Switzerland, broad resistance has sprung up such a development, which undermines all efforts towards sustainability. A coalition of Swiss environmental, human rights, consumer and farmers’ organisations are calling on the Federal Council to exclude palm oil from the ongoing negotiations with Malaysia and Indonesia.

    Through research, lobbying and campaigns, the palm oil coalition is seeking to make their demands known – and they are already seeing some signs of success. Various cantons have submitted state initiatives to the federal parliament calling for palm oil to be excluded. Moreover, in its 2018 spring session, the National Council approved a motion (in german) to that end with a significant majority. One of Public Eye’s longstanding demands – that free trade must not go hand in hand with damage to the environment and human rights – appears to be receiving attention at the political level.

  • Intellectual property rights

    Intellectual property rights such as patents and plant variety or brand protections are important instruments used to compensate creators for their innovations, yet on the other hand there is a public interest in using these innovations. The challenge in shaping intellectual property rights is to strike a balance between these two interests.

    The focus of current trade policy on strengthening intellectual property rights risks upsetting this balance. In free trade agreements with developing and emerging countries, it has become commonplace for industrial countries, which have by far the highest number of patents, to demand more comprehensive and stronger intellectual property rights.

    Switzerland accepts human rights violations

    Switzerland stands out in this regard; it regularly calls for greater protection of intellectual property rights within the framework of free trade agreements with poorer countries. There is a risk of this contributing to human rights violations, especially in two areas of particular interest to Switzerland: patents on drugs and plant variety protection on seeds.

    Comprehensive and excessively long-lasting patents make drugs more expensive. As a result, life-saving drugs become unaffordable, especially for poorer segments of the population. Yet access to such drugs is a documented human right – insufficient access violates the right to health.

    A higher level of protection on seeds can make necessary planting material unaffordable for small-scale farmers. This is also a matter of human rights: in a human rights impact assessment, Public Eye and its partner organisations outlined how stronger plant variety rights hamper small-scale farmers’ access to seeds, undermining their right to food.

    Therefore, together with many other organisations, Public Eye condemns the demand for stronger intellectual property rights regularly made by Switzerland in free trade negotiations – because human rights are not negotiable.

    A call for human rights impact assessments. Many industrial countries call on countries of the South to introduce stronger regulations on plant breeding. Together with its partner organisations, Public Eye carried out a human rights impact assessment to show the ramifications of this on the right to food. For years, Public Eye has been criticising Switzerland and other industrial countries for pressuring developing countries into joining the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV). By joining this intergovernmental organisation, countries commit to incorporate a higher level of protection for commercial seeds and planting material in their national legislation. For years, Public Eye has been pointing to the fact that the countries of the South were not included in the negotiations on the development of the UPOV system, which as a result serves neither their interests nor their needs.