Trade controle is not fair instrument

Published: Saturday 15 August 1992

In this issue, we carry two reports: One on the subject of human rights suppression and environmental degradation, and the other on trade bans against environmentally harmful products. Both trade and human rights are being used today as sticks to beat the South.

Northern NGOs have repeatedly raised these issues in world fora and media. They have also put pressure on their governments to ban trade in certain products or denigrate southern governments in the name of human rights. These campaigns, over time, have given southern countries a very negative image as environmental destroyers and suppressors of democratic dissent.

There is, no doubt, substantial truth in many of these criticisms. There are very few democratic regimes in the South -- though their number is growing -- and even those which have elected governments do not necessarily have systems of governance that extend democratic rights to the grassroots. The demand for trade bans is also based on several valid grounds. If a society does not want to consume a particular product, does it not have the right to do so? Surely, if the citizens of USA feel so strongly about the dolphin -- a creature that is by no means endangered or facing the threat of extinction but is extremely adorable and lovable -- do they not have the right to say that they will not eat any fish that comes stained with dolphin blood? At a moral level, the answer has got to be yes. And, similarly, if a society feels strongly that human rights are being suppressed in another society, does it not have the moral right and duty to protest?

At the level of NGOs and citizens' groups and their campaigns to win the hearts and minds of the people, as a part of their democratic rights, there cannot be any opposition to these arguments. Those who are being criticised have the opportunity to respond and present their own position. There is a problem, however, with this line of reasoning when governments begin to get involved.

The difference between a government banning the import of a product and a citizen refusing to pick it off the shelf of a shop is considerable. Relations between states must be governed by certain norms and agreements, which must be accepted and respected by all states, regardless of their political power and economic strength. How do we deal with the problem of human rights or trade in products that have been produced with damage to the environment, child labour, with destruction of the tribal habitat or through harm to an endearing animal like the dolphin? Governments have a habit of being extremely inconsistent, swayed as they invariably are by dominant interest groups. And, it is rarely clear whether decisions are taken by governments purely under public pressure or because they suit certain political and economic interests.

What is worse is that in the current world reality trade is used as an instrument entirely by northern countries to discipline environmentally errant nations. Surely, if India or Kenya were to threaten to stop trade with USA, it would hardly affect the latter. But the fact of the matter is that it is the northern countries that have the greatest impact on the world's environment and yet, their past record in their own countries and in their former colonies is nothing to be proud of.

The world definitely needs a system to discipline errant nations that suppress basic human rights, exploit their people, or damage the environment in a way that harms others. But the instruments that need to be devised for such a system of global discipline must be fair and equally accessible to all. Reinforcing the power that already flows in a northern direction cannot improve the world. The world will become a better place to live in only when a small Pacific nation can use a democratic lever of power to enforce discipline on, say, the government of France, the United Kingdom or the United States.

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