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Canadian government fails in bid to overturn asbestos ban

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Canada's bid to challenge European Union plans to introduce a complete ban on the use of asbestos, by countering an earlier French ban at the World Trade Organisation (WTO), appears to have ended in failure, writes Keith Nuttall. The defeat leaves the government in Ottawa with little but a damaged reputation for promoting environmental good practice worldwide.

Abandoning its standard green diplomacy, Canada had been battling to protect its sizeable asbestos mining and production industry, which employs 1,100 miners and generated C$160 million (£73 million) in revenue last year. Quebec province is even the home of a town called Asbestos, where 300 miners are the mainstay of the local economy.

The Canadian government brought a dispute hearing against the wide-ranging 1997 French ban - which barred the production, sale, import and use of white asbestos, claiming that it was as dangerous as the already-banned blue asbestos.

Canada countered, stating that when used as an ingredient in cement, white asbestos was not friable and so was safe.Certainly, claimed the Canadians, there was no proof that it was less healthy than alternative construction materials sanctioned by France. It argued that the ban was an illegal restraint of trade under WTO rules.

The stakes of the dispute were later heightened by the European Union, which has agreed its own EU-wide ban, starting in 2005, on the use of white asbestos in products, including cement for pipes and roofing.

If Canada had succeeded against the French, then the legal justification for the EU ban would have come tumbling down.

But it appears that the Canadian government's gamble has backfired. A WTO disputes panel has 'concluded that Canada has not established that it suffered non-violation nullification or impairment of a benefit' - WTO-speak for 'it lost'.Most of Canada's claims were dismissed and the panel found that the French ban was compatible with WTO rules.

The Canadian government was considering an appeal as the AJ went to press.

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