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When (Not) to Trade with Autocrats: Complicity, Exploitation, and Human Rights

  • Kevin K. W. Ip ORCID logo EMAIL logo


Transnational trade is at the heart of the global economy. Trade relations often transcend both ideological divides and regime type. Trading with autocratic regimes, however, raises significant moral issues. In their recent book, On Trade Justice, Mathias Risse and Gabriel Wollner argue that trade with autocratic regimes is morally permissible only under a very limited set of circumstances. This article discusses the morally permissible trade policies that liberal democracies ought to adopt toward autocratic regimes. Liberal democracies trading with autocratic regimes have a special obligation to improve the human rights conditions in these regimes. This duty is partly based on their complicity in human rights violations and on the fact that the democracies benefit from these violations in their trading relationships. Their responsibility goes beyond the improvement of labor conditions and requires various strategies such as imposing trade sanctions and export controls, and making trade conditional on human rights performance.

Corresponding author: Kevin K. W. Ip, Government and International Studies, Hong Kong Baptist University, 15 Baptist University Road, Kowloon Tong, Hong Kong, E-mail:


For helpful advice, I would like to thank the guest editors of the special issue, Peter Dietsch and Frank J. Garcia, and the anonymous reviewers for this journal.


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Published Online: 2021-09-02
Published in Print: 2022-04-26

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