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GATT, Human Rights and Burma

Subject: GATT, Human Rights and Burma

/* Written 10:08 pm  Nov 22, 1993 by bmcallister@xxxxxxxxxxx in igc:reg.seasia */
/* ---------- "GATT, Human Rights and Burma" ---------- */

Brian B.A. McAllister

	"Because we are free, we can never be indifferent to
the fate of freedom elsewhere.  Our moral sense dictates a
clear-cut preference to those societies which share with us
an abiding respect for individual human rights."[1]

	The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was
created to establish uniform principles of fair dealing for
international trade.[2]  The basic requirements are that
countries give other contracting parties most favored nation
(MFN) status, that they not exceed the tariffs listed on a
tariff schedule for that country, and that they give
national treatment to imports from other contracting
parties.[3]  Given limited exceptions from this obligation
for essential security interests and certain other
exemptions, this obligation would seem to prohibit
contracting parties from engaging in economic sanctions and
trade restraints to achieve human rights or foreign policy
goals.  The State Department under President Bush opposed
trade sanctions against Burma because it felt that such
sanctions are "probably GATT-illegal."[4]  Under this
argument, Burma, or, as it is also known, the Union of
Myanmar, is a contracting party to GATT, so any unilateral
sanctions or embargo imposed against it based on its human
rights record violate the MFN obligation.  This paper argues
that GATT in fact poses little impediment to the imposition
of unilateral economic sanctions against Burma, based on the
history of such sanctions, the exceptions to GATT, and the
intent of the drafters of GATT.  While justification of
sanctions by tacit exceptions to the treaty will probably
not be acceptable, any country, and particularly the United
States, could justify unilateral trade sanctions against
Burma under Article XXI, which permits sanctions to protect
essential security interests, or Article XX(e) which permits
sanctions against prison labor.
	This paper considers only unilateral sanctions in this
context, and discusses limited issues as they relate to such
a United States action.  Sanctions imposed pursuant to U.N
resolutions are generally accepted as an obligation under
the U.N. Charter, and are therefore considered GATT
legal.[5]  Sanctions taken in conjunction with two-thirds of
the GATT Council would also be authorized as joint action
under the Agreement.[6]  Foreign assistance is discussed
only to the degree that its interrelation with trade
sanctions seems germane.  


[1].Jimmy Carter's inaugural address, Public Papers of the
Presidents, Jimmy Carter, [1977-1] p.1 at 3.  Lowenfeld at

[2].General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, opened for
signature, Oct.30, 1947, 61 Stat. pts. 5, 6, T.I.A.S. No.
1700, 55 U.N.T.S. 187 [hereinafer GATT].

[3].GATT, art. I, art. III.

[4].House Foreign Affairs Committee, Asian and Pacific
Affairs Subcommittee, Testimony of Administration Witness
Lambertson, In The News, Federal News Service, May 8, 1990,
available in LEXIS, Nexis.

[5].GATT, art. XXI, Security Exceptions:
Nothing in this Agreement shall be construed
		 . . .
	(c)  to prevent any contracting party from taking any
action in pursuance of its obligations under the United
Nations Charter for the maintenance of international peace
and security.  
See generally Edmond McGovern, International Trade
Regulation 427-430 (1986).  

[6].	The GATT provision on joint action states in pertinent

In exceptional circumstances not elsewhere provided in the
Agreement, the CONTRACTING PARTIES may waive an obligation
imposed upon a contracting party by this Agreement; Provided
that any such decision shall be approved by a two thirds
majority of the votes cast and that such majority shall
comprise more than half of the contracting parties.