Trading places: human rights and trade agreements after Brexit

Last Wednesday the Prime Minister triggered Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union (EU) to notify the EU of Britain’s intention to leave the union. This week she visited Saudi Arabia while the Secretary of State for International Trade travelled to the Philippines. These meetings will be used by the British Government to initiate the possibility of future trade agreements, to be signed after Brexit. However, critics have argued that the UK may seek to dilute human rights provisions in order to expedite these new trade deals.

History of human rights and trade

Including human rights provisions within trade deals is often considered a contemporary idea. However, as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) explains, there is nothing new about the connection between human rights and trade. Indeed, trade has always required human rights rules. For example, in the ancient world, trade was important to propagating new goods and ideas. But rules to prevent looting and slavery were also required.

Human rights clauses as we know them today began to emerge and formalise during the late nineteenth century. During this period, the US, UK, Australia, and Canada banned trade in goods made by forced labour. Britain also put anti-slavery requirements in some of its trade agreements. In the Treaty of Versailles, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) was created to increase labour standards across the world.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the EU, the USA, and other developed countries began to incorporate loose and non-binding human rights language in their preferential trade agreements (PTAs). PTAs are trading blocs that gives preferential access to certain products from the participating countries. These provisions would often appear in the introductory text of the PTA, or in non-binding chapters.

Canada, Mexico, and the USA were the first countries to include explicit and binding human rights provisions in a trade agreement. The North American Free Trade Agreement includes binding provisions concerning labour rights, transparency agreements and public participation obligations in policymaking. This had a particularly positive impact on human rights in Mexico.   

Human rights clauses have had a number of positive effects. For instance, following the signing of a trade agreement between the EU and Chile which included human rights clauses, the Chilean Government introduced a number of policies to improve human rights. These include new laws to protect domestic workers, and the ratification of a number ILO conventions which have improved working conditions.

The current situation

Today, many of the world’s most important trading nations include human rights provisions in their PTAs. The WTO estimates that over three quarters of governments now participate in PTAs with human rights provisions. Some of these provisions are binding; others are non-binding.

As a member of the EU’s Customs Union, the United Kingdom does not currently negotiate its own international trade deals. Instead, the European Union negotiates as a single entity with external countries. The Government has indicated that the UK will leave the EU’s Customs Union following the completion of withdrawal negotiations.

Currently, the EU insists that all trade, cooperation, dialogue, partnership and association agreements with third parties contain a human rights clause. The EU also includes clauses to allow the trade deal to be suspended following a human rights violation in a partner country. This clause has previously been used against Zimbabwe. The EU’s human rights provisions are considered to be among the most stringent in the world.

Post-Brexit trade

Post-Brexit, if Britain does leave the EU’s Customs Union, then the responsibility for arranging new international trade deals will fall to the Department for International Trade. When the Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox, served as Shadow Foreign Secretary, he strongly promoted human rights. However, to date, he has made few comments regarding human rights clauses in trade agreements. Late last year, in a letter to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Secretary of State wrote that

“Britain's exit from the EU provides us with an opportunity to explore how we can best use free trade agreements to uphold [human rights] values whilst recognising the need for a balanced and proportionate response”

The Secretary of State’s comments have been interpreted by some to suggest that the UK may not be as stringent as the EU when implementing human rights provisions. They argue that his engagements to date show he is relaxed about human rights. For instance, in a recent article, the Guardian’s assistant editor, Simon Tisdall, argued that the Prime Minister’s visit to Saudi Arabia demonstrated that the UK's need for post-Brexit trade deals will trump human rights concerns.

Similarly, Liam Fox has been criticised for proclaiming the UK’s “shared values” with Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines leader whose war on drugs has killed 7,000 people, and who is nicknamed “The Punisher”.


Leaving the EU’s Customs Union offers the UK a new opportunity to sign trade deals with economies around the world. Previously, the EU has been criticised for being too slow and too inflexible in negotiating such deals. However, the UK Government should not de-prioritise human rights in order to sign such deals. This is why Bright Blue is advocating a new Human Rights Advisory Committee, similar to the Migration Advisory Committee, to advise the Government on human rights matters. For decades, Britain has been a world leader in the advancement of human rights. This should continue after Brexit.

James Dobson is a researcher at Bright Blue