Africa: NGOs Oppose Human Rights Clause in EPAs

Geneva — Part of the delay in the finalisation of the economic partnership agreements (EPAs) is due to the so-called non-execution clause that gives the EU the power to take steps against its African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) trading partners if they violate human rights, democracy and good governance principles.

"African governments and civil society resist this clause because EPAs are commercial agreements where the two parties give and take," explains Cheikh Tidiane Dieye, the civil society representative of the West African EPA negotiating team.

"Furthermore, the clause is not reciprocal since West Africa would not be able to take steps against the EU if Senegalese immigrants in France are put in jail in violation of basic human rights principles, for example," he adds.

The EPAs are the implementation of the trade chapter of the Cotonou agreement between the EU and the ACP, which already contains a strong non-execution clause that has been used several times. The Caribbean EPA - the only complete one to date - does contain a non-execution clause.

"Negotiations need a clear strategy," adds Jacob Kotchao, the civil society representative of the Central African EPA negotiating team. "Our countries have a long way to go with respect to human rights but we don't want these values to be used to the detriment of our development.

"We have economic and commercial interests and we don't want to give our partners arguments to preclude them."

Marc Maes from 11.11.11, a Brussels-based nongovernmental organisation (NGO) that works extensively on the EPAs, admits that European NGOs have not thought through this issue. "We don't have a common position," he told IPS in an interview.

In more general terms, he explains that the first time the issue of introducing human rights clauses into trade agreements came up was with the EU's trade agreement with Colombia that has still to be ratified.

"There has been a huge outcry about this agreement because of the situation of human and labour rights in Colombia, the most dangerous country in the world for unionists," he notes.

"The agreement replaces the GSP+ (generalised system of preferences plus) scheme that gives trade preferences to developing countries that commit themselves to actualising human rights and environmental and social standards.

"Since the EU would no longer have an instrument to put pressure on Colombia, European and Colombian NGOs have supported the idea of adding a human rights clause to the bilateral trade agreement."

David Hachfeld, trade expert at Oxfam Germany, argues that trade agreements and human rights relate to each other.

"The problem is that you cannot heal a negative effect on human rights caused by a trade agreement - for example on the right to food - just with a human rights clause. But, clearly, if these clauses are really enforced, they can play an important role."

He explains that the EU always tries to include clauses on human rights, environment and labour standards but to different degrees: "In the Korea trade agreement there is such a clause but it is quite weak, even weaker than in the GSP."

Apart from the issue of the human rights non-execution clause, another problem pointed to by African NGOs is the signing by individual countries of interim EPAs - rather than full EPAs by the designated blocs - that jeopardises regional integration.

"The EPA in its present form is not good and it cannot be signed," affirms Dieye. "But if we stop there, countries that have signed interim EPAs will have to implement them and we will lose regional integration. The challenge is: how to refuse a bad agreement while preserving our integration?"

He points to three possible scenarios: the first and feasible one sees the EU accepting a 70 percent tariff reduction, renouncing the non execution-clause and dropping the most-favoured nation clause that automatically would extend benefits in future ACP trade agreements to the EU.

In the second scenario, everybody sticks to their current positions: there is no regional agreement, three different commercial schemes are in place and it is the end of the integration - a catastrophe.

"The third possibility sees no need for the EPA," Dieye explains. "We stop everything, Côte d'Ivoire denounces its interim agreement. But then we would need regional solidarity mechanisms.

"We are trying to evaluate how much Côte d'Ivoire would lose from preference erosion and how the region could help them. Our obligation is then to negotiate a follow-up to the Cotonou agreement, not to sign it."

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