Jean Monnet Center at NYU School of Law


Author: Anne Orford

Title: Trade, Human Rights and the Economy of Sacrifice


My starting point for this paper is an uneasiness with the current internationalist literature on the 'linkage' of trade and human rights, and with the effects of my attempts to teach, write and speak about this literature. In the first part of the paper, I outline my reasons for this uneasiness, and suggest that there is a need to think again about the intimate relationship between the two fields of law. The second part of the paper traces the forms of law and political organisation that are made possible by the WTO harmonization agreements, focusing particularly on the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) and the Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (the SPS Agreement). Those who support these agreements do so on the basis that they enshrine rationality, science, objectivity and transparency as the norms governing public decision-making. However, these agreements can better be understood as incorporating passion, secrecy and singularity as the repressed foundation of responsible decision-making. I suggest that this form of law, with its secret relationship to mystery, can be understood through the Christian doctrine of sacrifice, and that this Christian story of fathers and sons is itself premised upon an unacknowledged maternal sacrifice. The third part of the paper asks whether human rights can offer a secular response to the demands of the market. The human rights tradition, at least as translated into the declarations and covenants of modern international law, would seem to challenge the logic of sacrifice to a mysterious God, through its commitment to creating the conditions enabling individuals to participate in the neutral and impartial functions of the liberal democratic state. Yet I suggest that here, too, the sacrifice of the feminine comes before the law. This attention to the place of the feminine reveals that human rights law and trade law function as doubles. The final part of the paper returns to the suspended question of feminine sacrifice, in order to begin to think about a form of international law that might be able to remain open to the possibility of encountering difference.

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Last updated on September 9th, 2004

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