By Kieran Guilbert
LONDON, Oct 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A landmark legal challenge will be filed in Britain on Monday over cotton imports from Uzbekistan in a case lawyers say could pave the way to stop slave-made goods entering the European Union (EU).
The legal action says imports of Uzbek cotton into EU nations are unlawful because the bloc has applied preferential tariffs without investigating the human rights situation in Uzbekistan or its compliance with international law obligations.
This violates EU rules and means many of its 28 members are facilitating a trade in cotton produced by a state-driven system of forced labour, according to the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF), the civil society group behind the case.
The Central Asian nation has acknowledged the use of forced labour in its cotton harvest, and vowed to "eradicate" the problem.
The lawyers behind the case hope it will succeed in London's Administrative Court - part of the High Court of Justice - and be referred to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg where any decision or ruling would be legally binding across the EU.
Such action could range from forcing the EU to conduct due diligence into Uzbekistan's cotton production to a ruling that would effectively stop the entry into the bloc of goods known to be produced by forced labour, said lawyers supporting the case.
"This approach is unprecedented ... it aims to disrupt the unhindered importation of forced labour cotton into Europe," said Gerry Liston, legal officer at Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), a Britain-based charity helping UGF with the case.
"If successful, it would have implications for all sorts of goods tainted with forced labour (in the EU)," he added.
Liston pointed to a 2016 U.S. law that allows customs officials to seize and detain goods suspected to have been made by slave labour, and said a positive ruling could drive the EU's legislative bodies to adopt similar measures affecting the bloc.
The case comes at a vital time for EU-Uzbek relations as the bloc is negotiating an agreement with Uzbekistan that would see preferential tariffs extended to its textile exports, he added.
A spokeswoman for trade matters with the European Commission (EC) - the EU's executive arm - said it did not comment on legal proceedings in front of national courts.
"As regards developments in Uzbekistan, we follow them closely, as this is relevant for our overall trade engagement," she said, adding that the EC followed the U.N. International Labour Organization (ILO) on the application of work standards.
The ILO last year said 93% of those who worked in the 2018 Uzbek cotton harvest did so voluntarily, and the systematic recruitment of students, teachers, doctors and nurses had ended - although this was disputed by human rights groups such as UGF.
In response to a request for comment put to Britain's international trade department, a spokesman said the government "does not generally comment on ongoing or potential litigation".
Last year Britain, which gives preferential tariffs to Uzbekistan, imported 360,000 pounds ($455,000) of Uzbek cotton, - 0.1% of its total cotton imports in 2018 - state data showed.
UZBEK COTTON COMMITMENT
The annual cotton harvest in Uzbekistan is the world's largest recruitment operation, with about 2.6 million people temporarily picking cotton every year, according to the ILO.
Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov, who has been opening up the country since taking office in 2016, has vowed to stop thousands of students, teachers and health workers from picking the harvest, a practice widely condemned as forced labour.
"The government of Uzbekistan remains fully committed to eradicating forced labour in the cotton harvest," Erkin Mukhitdinov, first deputy minister at the country's labour ministry, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation via email.
"We have taken a number of steps including increased wages, improved working and living conditions, reduced areas allocated for cotton production," he said, without responding directly to a request for comment on the upcoming court proceedings.
However, Berlin-based UGF last year said in a report that state-imposed forced labour was still "systematic and massive".
Under a 2012 EU regulation, Uzbek cotton imports receive a preferential tariff under the Generalised Scheme of Preferences, which seeks to facilitate trade with certain developing nations.
But the legal motion said this regulation was void as a matter of EU law, and cannot be applied by Britain or any member state of the bloc to cotton imports from Uzbekistan.
UGF said this was because the EU had not assessed the human rights implications of applying tariffs to Uzbek cotton nor considered the nation's compliance with an ILO convention on forced labour to which it is a party.
UGF Director Umida Niyazova said she hoped the legal action would attract international attention and influence Uzbekistan's government to change the "system of forced labour".
"Any kind of global pressure at this point ... at this time .. could be very effective," she said. "This case could be the last straw, and an important moment for the Uzbek people."
($1 = 0.7912 pounds) (Reporting by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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