WTO upholds French asbestos ban

In a landmark ruling, the World Trade Organisation has ruled in favour of France’s claim to protect public health and the environment over Canada’s right to free trade.


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WTO upholds French asbestos banIn a landmark ruling, the World Trade Organisation has ruled in favour of France’s claim to protect public health and the environment over Canada’s right to free trade.The appellate body of the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled on 12 March that France’s 1997 ban on the import and manufacture of asbestos did not violate international trade rules as Canada had argued, in an attempt to protect a CA$200 million (US$130 million) trade. Canada had claimed that France could not legally prohibit the import and marketing of certain asbestos products, in this case, chrysotile cement, despite its carcinogenic nature, because health risks can be substantially reduced with various precautions. Before the ban, France was Europe’s biggest importer of chrysotile from Canada.

But in a landmark ruling after Canada had appealed against the WTO’s earlier finding that a ban was justified on the grounds of protecting human health or the environment for acting ‘outside of its mandate’, the WTO found in favour of France. In the report of its Appellate Body, the WTO said that health considerations must be taken into account when interpreting anti-discrimination rules, and products entailing health risks cannot be compared with safer substitutes meaning different governments are entitled to treat dangerous substances differently.

France’s Secretary of State for Overseas Trade, François Huwart, and the Minister for Employment, Elisabeth Guigou, both welcomed the WTO’s decision while EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy said that it showed that “legitimate health issues can be put above pure trade concerns.” The EU banned five out of six types of asbestos in 1991, and the use of chrysotile was severely restricted. In July 1999, the European Commission imposed a complete ban on chrysotile to be implemented by 2005 (see related story).

Canadian International Trade Minister Pierre Pettigrew said that he was “disappointed” with the Appellate Body’s report and said that Canada in no way disputes the right of countries to adopt regulations in the public interest or establish appropriate levels of protection, particularly on public health grounds.

“In Canada, we achieve the same health protection objectives through our policy of controlled use of certain specific applications of chrysotile asbestos,” said Natural Resources Minister Ralph Goodale. “Canada’s policy of safe use is well founded because it has a sound scientific basis and is a responsible approach.”

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