Separated at Birth: The North American Agreements on Labor and the Environment

26 Pages Posted: 29 May 2004

See all articles by John H. Knox

John H. Knox

Wake Forest University - School of Law


The North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation and the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation are similar in many ways, from the concerns that led to their creation to the criticisms leveled against them. They are usually seen as bookends to the North American Free Trade Agreement, addressing parallel problems through virtually identical institutions, the Commission for Labor Cooperation (CLC) and the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC). But the agreements are less similar than they first appear. Despite their common origins, they reflect fundamentally different approaches to international organization.

On the surface, both reflect the traditional Westphalian view of international law, which assigns states, represented by their national governments, responsibility for creating and implementing law on the international plane. Both modify the Westphalian model slightly by focusing on issues of domestic governance that were traditionally considered outside international purview. But only the environmental agreement goes decisively beyond Westphalia by providing roles for nongovernmental actors in the enforcement and further elaboration of its obligations.

This Article locates the agreements along the path international law is taking away from Westphalia. It then compares the records of the agreements' compliance mechanisms, which represent three milestones along that path, ranging from pure state-to-state dispute resolution to a post-Westphalian citizen submissions procedure. The experience of the first ten years with these mechanisms provides empirical support for the idea that traditional compliance procedures are less effective than post-Westphalian procedures at promoting compliance with environmental and labor norms.

The Article concludes by urging labor and environmental advocates to recognize this lesson. In particular, it suggests that they should stop pursuing the chimera of government-triggered sanctions as a way to obtain labor and environmental goals in trade agreements. Instead, they would do better to work to incorporate opportunities for non-governmental actors to participate at the international level in the creation, implementation, and enforcement of labor and environmental standards.

Suggested Citation

Knox, John H., Separated at Birth: The North American Agreements on Labor and the Environment. Loyola of Los Angeles International and Comparative Law Review, Vol. 26, 2004. Available at SSRN:

John H. Knox (Contact Author)

Wake Forest University - School of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 7206
Winston-Salem, NC 27109
United States

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