Human Rights, Labor Rights, and International Trade

By Lance A. Compa; Stephen F. Diamond | Go to book overview
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Chapter 4
Labor Rights Provisions in U.S. Trade Law "Aggressive Unilateralism"?

Philip Alston

Legislatively mandated measures designed to protect the labor rights of workers in foreign countries constitute an increasingly important dimension of United States human rights policy. Perhaps because those measures have been enacted under the rubric of U.S. trade law, rather than in the context of human rights legislation, they have attracted rather limited critical (as opposed to essentially descriptive) attention from international lawyers in the human rights field.1 But this relative neglect is unjustified. As international trade becomes even more important in a post-Cold War world with its many additional would-be market economies, and as protectionist pressures increase in the United States and other developed market economies, the more attractive punitive or retaliatory trade measures become. This is especially true if they can be justified not solely by reference to economic considerations but also on human rights grounds. While measures in response to "market dumping" are a form of economic self-defense, measures to combat "social dumping" can be defended in largely altruistic or humanitarian terms.2

It is submitted, however, that the policy assumptions embodied in current U.S. "international worker rights" legislation (a phrase that, at least to a non-American, is surely ungrammatical), as well as the manner in which that legislation is being implemented, are highly questionable from an international law perspective. Specifically, there are several matters that warrant careful examination by proponents of an international rule of law in relation to both trade and human rights matters. These include: the use of the rhetoric but not the substance of "international standards"; the application to other countries of standards that have not been accepted by those countries and that are not generally


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