Monetary penalties should be used as the primary tool for enforcing trade agreement provisions, including workers' rights protections, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick.

The letter to Mr. Zoellick, released today, warns that the option of trade sanctions should still be reserved if governments refuse to pay penalties, or continue systematic violations of a trade agreement.

Human Rights Watch is the first major human rights group to support monetary penalties as part of a comprehensive approach to enforcing labor rights in trade pacts.

"We hope this approach could help forge consensus on the contentious issue of labor rights and trade," said Tom Malinowski, Human Rights Watch's Washington Advocacy Director. "Labor rights should be incorporated into trade agreements in ways that are enforceable -- without shutting down trade or benefiting rich countries at the expense of poor ones."

Human Rights Watch said that if monetary penalties are to be incorporated into future trade agreements, labor rights protections should be subject to the same enforcement procedures available to other issues, such as protections for intellectual property.

The letter also stressed the need for an independent oversight body to ensure that labor rights protections in future trade pacts are respected. Such a body should have the authority to hear complaints from individuals, governments and non-governmental organizations, to initiate investigations on its own, to recommend remedies, and to impose penalties when governments fail to act.