WTO in "landmark" health protection ruling

Final backing for French asbestos ban clarifies countries' legal rights to block trade in "unsafe" goods

A ruling published yesterday by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) disputes appeal body has confirmed last year's decision to approve a French ban on imports of products containing asbestos on health protection grounds. The appeal body's decision is the final word on the case against France's ban brought by Canada in 1998.

In a surprise twist, however, the appellate body has gone beyond simply upholding the WTO ruling (ENDS Daily 19 September 2000), concluding that Canada's complaint should have been thrown out because products known to pose dangers to human health, such as those containing asbestos, should not be defined as similar to safer substitutes.

This distinction could make it easier for countries to restrict imports of goods whose danger to human health is established.

Yesterday's ruling was welcomed by EU trade commissioner Pascal Lamy, who called it a "landmark" decision and said it proved that WTO rules allowed "legitimate health issues [to] be put above pure trade concerns". The European Commission argued the case on behalf of France. An EU ban on almost all uses of asbestos will enter into force in 2005 (ENDS Daily 29 July 1999).

The failure of Canada's case against France represents the first time the WTO has upheld a country's right to block imports of products on human health grounds, although it has in one instance approved trade barriers on environmental grounds.

The appellate body's ruling will be formally adopted next month.

Follow Up:
WTO, tel: +41 22 739 5111, appellate body ruling; EU response.

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