ECA Urges Respect For Human Rights In Free Trade Agreements

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By Joseph INOKOTONG
The Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), has counseled that the plight of the people should be paramount, especially human rights when negotiating the continent’s Free Trade Area.
David Luke, Director of the African Trade Policy Centre at the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), said this on Saturday at the launch of the report on Human Rights Impact Assessment of the African Continental Free Trade Area in Senegal’s capital.
He pointed out that ‘We need to put people ahead of economic aggregates and focus on human rights, especially for the vulnerable when negotiating Africa’s Continental Free Trade Area.’
Speaking to delegates at the 10thAfrican Development Week, Luke advised African states to carefully consider the overall benefits of the Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) agreements and the possible negative impact for their populations.
A statement issued by Communications Section of the Economic Commission for Africa said quoted Luke as saying “We need to pay close attention to the details of how trade opens under the CFTA to ensure that we respect human rights commitments and keep focus on the people in whose name development is being pursued.”
The impact assessment report, a joint effort between ECA, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, remarks that trade liberalisation efforts must be balanced and the impact of distribution should be checked.
“We should ensure poorer countries can benefit from open trade. Inequality does not only matter to people living in poverty but also for the wellbeing of society,” stressed Caroline Dommen, a research consultant with the ECA.
Dommen noted that governments are concerned that “trade often benefits capital” leaving populations with little or no tangible benefits from open trade agreements. She remarked the report recommends that “trade should complement domestic production capacity and must benefit producers and consumers.”
Free trade agreements mainly affect the rights to food; movement; work and adequate standard of living. According to ECA, Africa spends $64 billion dollars a year on food imports, with 20% of inter-African trade stemming from agriculture. Since the bulk of African trade hinges largely on movement, any meaningful free trade agreement requires facilitating cross-border movement.
Cross-border trading provides income for43% of Africa’s population according to one of the report’s researchers, Christopher Changwe Nshimbi, the Deputy Director of the Centre for the Study of Governance at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.
The prevailing perception of cross-border trading as an illegal and tax evading informal sector defeats the purpose of understanding that this form of trading has an impact on the formal economy, said Nshimbi.
“Informal trade is dynamic and diverse in goods and services cutting across various sectors such as agriculture, manufacturing and services,” stated Nshimbi.
Reiterating Luke’s point on transforming the African economy to “ensure that it starts to work for the millions without jobs”, Nshimbi pointed out that informal traders constitute 70% of the economy in many African countries and recommended governments to include the informal economy as part of employment creation.
Easing border formalities and procedures isa priority if Africa wants to have a successful free trade area.
Women conduct a bulk of cross-border trading and are often faced with harassment, lack of security and are unaware of their rights. Discussion at the report launch pointed to many hindrances to cross-border trade, for example obstacles posed by border security agents, who in many circumstances, unwittingly hamper trade and erode profits for the traders. Complicated procedures that defy even the educated and lack of facilities play a role in reducing a trade that could benefit many families.
Those attending the report launch recommended that ECA should strive to effectively communicate with the negotiators for the free trade area that human rights and free trade should be aligned. Africa expects to establish its continent-wide economic community by 2027 and negotiators need to be aware of the confluence of rights and free trade.
The session concluded that in addition to easing of procedures, the negotiators should address the rights to movement, work and food, and how people are to be made aware of these rights.