Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Rights-Based Approach to Fair Trade: Human Rights Framework

Before we can talk about integrating a Rights-Based Approach to Fair Trade, we need to be familiar with Human Rights. To begin:

"Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status. We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination. These rights are all interrelated, interdependent and indivisible" 
- UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Here is my challenge to you: Can you list your basic human rights? We assume we know  our rights, but how many can you list in the next ten minutes? Honestly, one reason that rights are violated every day is because too few have actually taken a moment to read this landmark document. As Dr. Mike Thair commented on the last post, "if you stick you head up and shout too loudly against a lot of these entrenched practices, you will soon be dealt with and knocked back into line... NGOs and the well meaning importers may have a lot of warm fuzzies running training programs, but does anything actually change for producers/artisans?"

So my challenge is simple: List your as many of your rights as you can, then grade yourself. To help, my partner Chou has used her creative talents to provide a copy of the UDHR here and I encourage you to post it in your workplace, in the community center, or in a public space! For those of you who are trading with producers whose first language is not English, the United Nations has translated this document into 131 languages:  It would be great if you could provide your trade partners with a copy!

Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Note: The posters in this document can be found on:

For many Fair Traders, whether they are a producer, an advocate, a member of an organization supporting Fair Trade producers, or a sales person in a small Fair Trade retail shop, being familiar with these internationally recognized rights provides you with the very foundation of Fair Trade. Personally, I would like to see the UN Human Rights conventions fully integrated into the Fair Trade Principles. At this time, only one UN Human Rights Convention is mentioned: the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). In fact, it is mentioned in the first sentence of Principle 5: Ensuring No Child Labour or Forced Labour

"The organization adheres to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and national / local law on the employment of children."

Again, how many Fair Traders have actually read the CRC? More importantly, how many of your children have read this UN Declaration? Teaching children about their rights is important if we want children to grow up to be respectful of the rights of others. To facilitate, here is a downloadable poster of the convention in easy to understand English. Try this exercise with a child or a group of children and make it fun: List as many rights for children as you can and then compare your list to the convention! 
Convention on the Rights of the Child Easy Language Poster

The point of these exercises is to prove that rights are not some abstract idea in a distant UN document far from reality. Quite the contrary! These documents are tangible; these conventions form the foundation of the rights we enjoy on a day-to-day basis! The CRC has been translated into 58 languages and are available from UNICEF at their child-friendly page:, so if you have trade partners whose first language is not English, download a copy and take the extra step to print it out on a poster size paper, laminate it, and mail it to them! What a terrific way to let them know you support and care for their children! 

What about Cultural Rights and Fair Trade? 
The Global Fair Trade movement respects and celebrates cultural diversity! As a matter of fact, it should be noted in the latest revision of the Fair Trade Principles (for a pdf copy go to: "Our Values, Our Shared Principles") the WFTO added to Principle 3: Trading Practices

"Fair Trade recognizes, promotes and protects the cultural identity and traditional skills of small producers as reflected in their craft designs, food products and other related services."

Not surprisingly, the foundation of this statement can be found in another UN Convention protecting social and cultural rights. In addition to the UDHR, the United Nations has established nine core international human rights treaties, eight of which are directly related to Fair Trade: 


What about Labour Rights? 
When it comes to labour rights, there is the International Labour Organization (ILO) which is "the only tripartite U.N. agency with government, employer, and worker representatives. This tripartite structure makes the ILO a unique forum in which the governments and the social partners of the economy of its 183 Member States can freely and openly debate and elaborate labour standards and policies." (

Created on the heels of World War I, it was founded on the belief that "universal and lasting peace can be accomplished only if it is based on social justice... The driving forces for ILO's creation arose from security, humanitarian, political and economic considerations."  

The ILO has passed multiple Conventions and Recommendations which establish the international labour standards relevant to Fair Trade today. Conventions, are legally binding international treaties that may be ratified by member states. Recommendations serve as non-binding guidelines. In many cases, a convention lays down the basic principles to be implemented by ratifying countries, while a related recommendation supplements the convention by providing more detailed guidelines on how it could be applied. 

As it stands, one of the ten Fair Trade Principles mentions the ILO, Principle 8: Ensuring Good Working Conditions:

"The organization provides a safe and healthy working environment for employees and / or  members. It complies, at a minimum, with national and local laws and ILO conventions on health and safety."

However, ILO conventions can be applied to many of the Fair Trade Principles. By overlapping the UN Declarations with the ILO Conventions and Recommendations we have established the framework for a Rights-Based Approach to Fair Trade. 

It is time for the Global Fair Trade Movement to thoroughly integrate internationally established Human and Labour Rights into our shared principles; 

It is time to Integrate a Rights-Based Approach to Fair Trade!!!

Sadly, the most glaring absence of reference to a UN Human Rights document is in Principle 6: Commitment to Non-Discrimination, Gender Equity, and Freedom of Association. Nowhere in this principle is there a reference to the most obvious Human Rights document, the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), 1979. Not only that, CEDAW is the only UN Convention to define Discrimination:

"‘Discrimination against women’ shall mean any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.” – United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Article 1

There is so much to say about this UN Convention and how the system works, I am saving it for the next blog post! My point here is that by integrating human rights into our shared principles, we will strengthen our ability to tackle poverty through trade. As I mentioned before, a Rights-Based Approach recognizes poverty as injustice and includes marginalization, discrimination, and exploitation as the central causes of poverty. 

This brings us back to Dr. Mike Thair's point - that the powers that be, whether they are political, social, or corporate oppressors, will beat you down and put you in line if you don't comply with the status quo. If a picture speaks a thousand words, here is my articulated response: 

Mahatma Gandhi, 1869 - 1948
Dorothy Day, 1897 - 1980
Martin Luther King, Jr, 1929 - 1968
Dalai Lama, 1935 - present
All are Rights Activists of one form or another, and all have greatly impacted our lives today through their commitment to a cause they believe in! Even more so, they each made great impacts on history while adhering to the principle on Non-Violence.

My point here is that six of the ten principles are directly related to human and labour rights. In order for Fair Trade to be sustainable into the future, do as Mother Jones succinctly stated: "Sit down and read. Educate yourself for the coming conflicts." To this end, I have created a framework to reference for Fair Trade activists, advocates, producers, researchers and supporters to integrate a Rights-Based Approach to Fair Trade:
It is not necessary to memorize all these conventions, that is not the point; just become familiar with your rights in order that you can make change happen! Make it a fun activity, you may surprise yourself with what you already know or don't know about your rights in the UDHR and the CRC.

The first step in utilizing a Rights-Based Approach is knowing your rights.

Mitch Teberg, MA 
International Consultant
Sustainable Development / Fair Trade
Researcher / Trainer / Consultant   

For those who prefer reading black on white, here is the downloadable version of this post on pdf: 
A Rights-Based Approach to Fair Trade - Human Rights Framework

1 comment:

  1. Readers may also be interested that many years before Fairtrade existed, we imported almost 3 tonnes of instant coffee from Tanzania to the UK to help support manufacturing in the Third World. Last week BBC radio interviewed me about our 'Campaign Coffee', that helped to start the idea of ethically sourced coffee in Great Britain. The broadcast is now available on YouTube (4 minutes):