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Belarus: European Commission Threatens Trade Sanctions

Brussels, 7 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The European Commission today said violations of trade union rights in Belarus may result in the country being stripped of EU trade benefits.

Arancha Gonzalez, a commission spokeswoman, said three international trade union confederations have accused authorities in Belarus of a number of related violations.

Gonzalez said the commission has launched a formal inquiry into the labor rights situation in Belarus.

"[We have today decided to] open an inquiry into Belarus's non-respect of core labor standards, notably limitations in trade union activities, [the] non-registration of free trade unions and repression of trade union leaders," Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said the investigation will last six months. If the allegations are proven to be true, the EU will exclude Belarus from its so-called "Generalized System of Tariff Preferences." The system currently extends to 178 developing countries.

Gonzalez said the move is part of the EU's drive to make trade benefits given to developing countries conditional on demonstrated respect for internationally accepted labor rights standards.

She said the EU has pushed the idea in the World Trade Organization, but without success -- leading the EU to try to unilaterally enforce the international standards.

"One way of doing that is granting additional trade benefits to those countries that demonstrate respect [for] basic, core labor standards, and equally, we do withdraw those trade preferences from those countries that do not respect those basic standards relating to forced labor, to child labor, to freedom of association, and to discrimination in employment," Gonzalez said.

Rewarding Sri Lanka for recent reforms, the commission today decided to double that country's tariff exclusion benefit.

Gonzalez said the EU annually imports goods from Belarus worth 857 million euros ($1.1 billion). A significant part of Belarusian imports to the EU are textiles, which are subject to EU customs tariffs.

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