The Disparate Treatment of Rights in Trade

57 Pages Posted: 7 Jan 2021 Last revised: 2 Oct 2021

Date Written: November 1, 2020


Rights advocates are increasingly urging U.S. trade negotiators to include new binding and sanctionable provisions that would protect human rights, women’s rights, and gender equality. Their efforts are understandable. Trade agreements have significant advantages as a process for advancing global rights. Even though Congress and the Executive incorporate global environmental standards and labor rights in U.S. trade agreements, they have refused to incorporate gender rights and broader human rights. The rationale behind the United States’ disparate treatment of rights in trade has received almost no scholarly attention. That is a mistake.

Using labor rights as a case study, this Article discerns the rationale for incorporating rights in U.S. trade policy. Properly understood, U.S. policymakers incorporate some rights in U.S. trade agreements because they view those rights as critical to protecting national industries and citizens from unfair trade conditions. Efforts to incorporate rights as the ends rather than the means to trade policy accordingly fail to resonate with policymakers. Those efforts also fail to appreciate the significant policy drawbacks of coupling trade law and international rights law, such as conflicts between international law and U.S. federal and state laws, and challenges to domestic processes in the United States and abroad. Nevertheless, there are alternative ways that the United States may protect global rights while preserving the sanctity of both regimes.

Keywords: International Human Rights, Labor Rights, Environmental Rights, Gender Rights, Trade Agreements, United States Trade Agenda, USMCA, ILO

JEL Classification: K31,K32, K33, J80, J81, J71, F10, F18, F66

Suggested Citation

LeClercq, Desiree, The Disparate Treatment of Rights in Trade (November 1, 2020). Fordham Law Review, Vol. 90, No. 1, 2021, Available at SSRN: or

Desiree LeClercq (Contact Author)

Cornell ILR School ( email )

Ithaca, NY 14853-3901
United States

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