Loss of Market Access a ‘Clear Possibility’ if Rights Issues Not Addressed, EU Warns

By The Irrawaddy 1 November 2018

YANGON—The European Union has warned Myanmar that withdrawal of trade preferences is a “clear possibility” if the country fails to uphold and respect the principles enshrined in the 15 fundamental international human rights and labor rights conventions of the UN and the International Labor Organization (ILO).

Under the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme—part of the Generalized Scheme of Preferences (GSP)—the EU unilaterally grants exporters from Least Developed Countries (LDCs) including Myanmar tariff-free and quota-free access to its market for all products except arms and ammunition. The scheme aims to contribute to the economic development of these countries and their integration into the global trading system.

Myanmar joined the scheme in 2013, but the bloc is now considering revoking the country’s trade preferences due to human rights violations in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states and concerns about labor rights. The EU’s move to place Myanmar’s status under review has come under serious criticism in Myanmar. If the trade preferences were withdrawn, nearly 500,000 workers—mostly young women in the garment sector, the country’s most labor-intensive industry—would be affected.

The reiterated warning came on Thursday at the end of a four-day monitoring mission by a delegation of experts from the European Commission and the European External Action Service to assess then human rights and labor rights situation.

The EU’s statement on Thursday said the mission’s findings will inform Brussels’ analysis of whether to remove the trade preferences through a temporary EBA withdrawal procedure. The EU will now analyze as a matter of priority the information gathered during the mission, as well as further information from the Myanmar government, before considering the next steps.

“In order to continue to benefit from duty-free, quota-free access to the EU market through the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme, Myanmar must uphold and respect the principles enshrined in these conventions (fifteen fundamental UN and International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions),” the announcement states.

It added: “Withdrawal of trade preferences is a clear possibility if other channels of cooperation have failed to reach results.”

Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmström said the EU expected Myanmar to address the severe shortcomings that have been highlighted during the monitoring mission.

“If they do not act, Myanmar authorities are putting their country’s tariff-free access to the EU market in danger—a scheme which has proved to be vital for the economic and social development of the country,” the commissioner said.

On Wednesday, Cardinal Charles Bo, the archbishop of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Yangon, said he opposed the revoking of the scheme, as it would mainly affect people at the grassroots of society. He added that it would cause the country’s already struggling economy to deteriorate further.

Radio Free Asia’s Burmese service quoted the cardinal as saying that the garment sector employed more than 400,000 workers, and the West rarely considered the fact that the government led by State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was trying hard to build a democratic country.

During their visit to Myanmar this week, the EU delegates met with several ministers, as well as members of trade unions, the business community and civil society, along with representatives of the UN and ILO in the country.

They discussed supporting international efforts to investigate and prosecute individuals suspected of having committed crimes against humanity; ensuring full humanitarian access, notably in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states; ensuring implementation of the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State; and creating conditions for the voluntary, safe and dignified return of Rohingya refugees currently residing in Bangladesh to their places of origin.