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Date: Thu, 1 May 1997 23:33:00 -0400
Sender: Forum on Labor in the Global Economy <LABOR-L@YORKU.CA>
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Date: Thu, 1 May 1997 22:05:41 +0000
From: Jagdish Parikh <jagdish@igc.apc.org>

E.U. to delink human rights from Trade? European Commission denies Australian press report

International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions, ICEM UpDate
No. 29/1997 (30 April 1997)

Will the European Union water down its insistence on binding human rights clauses in its trade agreements with other parts of the world?

A report in the Australian Financial Review this week suggests that it might. The Review, which is Australia's main business newspaper, claims that Australia and the EU "have scuttled plans for a new framework agreement involving a controversial human rights clause."

But, contacted by ICEM UPDATE today, sources at the EU's powerful civil service the Commission denied this. No decision had yet been taken on the fate of the framework agreement, they said. They did, however, confirm that human rights are a "live issue" in EU trade negotiations with a number of countries and are "causing real difficulties" in current talks with Australia. Efforts to find a solution are, they said, continuing.

That solution has already been found, the Australian Financial Review claims: the proposed "framework agreement" on trade and other issues would be dropped, and a "joint declaration" adopted instead. The joint declaration would still contain a commitment to human rights, but without the sanction that trade and other arrangements would be rescinded if the commitment is not kept by one or other side.

But why does the Australian government have a problem with a binding human rights clause? According to the Australian Financial Review, Canberra "baulked at Brussels' scheme for a legally enforceable sanctions process which could have seen disaffected Aboriginal groups and trade unions lobbying the EU for action against Australia."

Trade union rights are undoubtedly at issue. They have come under growing attack in Australia recently from the right-of-centre federal government and a number of state governments. And one human rights touchstone in EU trade agreements with "third countries" since 1995 is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Amongst other things, the Universal Declaration recognises everybody's right to form and to join trade unions.

So who will back down: Brussels or Canberra? That depends on how far Canberra is now prepared to gamble with Australia's place in the rapidly evolving free trade area among the main OECD economies.

But it also depends on how seriously Brussels takes its own commitment to human rights. There has been some speculation recently that the EU's commissioners are split on the linking of trade to other issues such as human rights and environmental protection. Commission sources deny this, however, and say linkage is safe in the Commission's hands.

Any EU attempt to "delink" would certainly run into opposition from trade unions and others. It would also mean some very mixed signalling from Brussels. After sustained international trade union lobbying, the EU recently withdrew Burma's trade privileges because of rights violations - notably the use of forced labour. This was the first time the EU had taken such decisive action over an external labour rights issue.