On March 29th, 2017, the ICTSD, with the support of the German Development Cooperation, organised a dialogue on “Ensuring Sustainability through Trade Agreements” under the RTA Exchange dialogue series aimed at systematically exploring possibilities for convergence and coherence-building between regional trade agreements (RTAs) and the multilateral trade system. Since the early 90’s and the negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), several bilateral or regional trade agreements have incorporated explicit provisions related to sustainable development, ranging from specific conditionalities in unilateral preference schemes (e.g EU GSP +), to more comprehensive approaches in the context of reciprocal free trade agreements. Over time, as different models and practices emerged, such provisions have evolved and become more sophisticated in their scope and their approach.
Today, RTAs include a wide variety of provisions going from innovative cooperation mechanisms; through provisions to address conflicts at the intersection of trade and sustainable development; to measures promoting compliance with international or domestic environmental and labour laws; or regulatory commitments to advance social or environmental objectives. In addition to providing enforceable disciplines that advanced sustainable development, these bilateral and regional agreements also acted as fertile ground for innovation and cooperation. Such developments contrast with the limited progress observed at the World Trade Organization (WTO) where most evolutions occurred through jurisprudence as opposed to new commitments or disciplines. As the international community moves towards the implementation of the newly agreed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the treatment of sustainability concerns in bilateral and regional arrangements provides essential precedents and practical experiences from which lessons or best practices can be drawn to inform developments at the multilateral level, be it at the WTO or in other international arena.