by Someshwar Singh

Geneva, 30 Nov 99 -- The UN Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights has urged member states of the WTO attending the Third Ministerial Conference at Seattle to ensure that the organization plays 'a positive and constructive role in relation to human rights.'

In a statement adopted here last Friday, the UN Committee says trade liberalization does not necessarily create and lead to a favourable environment for the realization of economic, social and cultural rights.

The UN Committee is a treaty monitoring body established by ECOSOC to oversee implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which is a legally-binding agreement ratified by over a hundred WTO member states.

"Trade liberalization must be understood as a means, not an end," the statement said. "The end which trade liberalization should serve is the objective of human well-being to which the international human rights instruments give legal expression. In this regard the Committee wishes to remind the WTO members of the central and fundamental nature of human rights obligations."

In its task of monitoring compliance of States parties with their obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (the Covenant), the Committee says it has become increasingly aware of 'the extent to which international economic policies and practices affect the ability of States to fulfill their treaty obligations.' Therefore, it endorses the call from the United Nations Sub-Commission on Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in its resolution 1999/30 of August 1999 for steps to be taken "to ensure that human rights principles and obligations are fully integrated in future negotiations in the World Trade Organization", and for proper study to be undertaken of the "human rights and social impacts of economic liberalization programmes, policies and laws".

In particular, the Committee has urged the WTO Ministerial Conference to undertake a review of the full range of international trade and investment policies and rules, to ensure that these are consistent with existing treaties, legislation and policies designed to protect and promote all human rights.

"Such a review should address as a matter of highest priority the impact of WTO policies on the most vulnerable sectors of society as well as on the environment."

The Committee has pointed out that the UNDP's Human Development Report 1999 signals a strong warning against the negative consequences of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) particularly on food security, indigenous knowledge, biosafety and access to health care, major concerns of the Committee as reflected in articles 11 to 15 of the Covenant.

"The wave of economic and corporate restructuring undertaken to respond to an increasingly competitive global market and the widespread dismantling of social security systems, have resulted in unemployment, work insecurity and worsening labour conditions giving rise to violations of core economic and social rights set forth in articles 6 to 9 of the Covenant," the statement says.

In the view of the Committee, the process of "global governance reform must be driven by a concern for the individual and not for purely macroeconomic considerations alone."

"Human rights norms must shape the process of international economic policy formulation so that the benefits of the evolving international trading regime for human development will be shared equitably by all, in particular the most vulnerable sectors."

In its work, the Committee says it will continue to monitor the impact of international economic policies on the progressive realization by States parties of their obligations under the Covenant, as well as the extent to which States contribute to formulating international and national economic policies that disregard and/or impact negatively on economic, social and cultural rights.

The Committee urges WTO members to ensure that their international human rights obligations are considered as a matter of priority in their negotiations - which will be an important testing ground for the commitment of States to the full range of their international obligations. (SUNS4563)

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

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