This article first appeared in the EU Observer, April 23, 2013.
LONDON - European Parliamentarians deserve praise for blocking a textile agreement with Uzbekistan due to systematic and continuous human rights violations in its cotton sector.
This week, the parliament’s trade committee will review this position and in light of the Uzbek government’s lack of progress in bringing this practice to a meaningful end, should call upon the European Commission to launch an investigation into Uzbekistan’s trade preferences with Europe.
Uzbekistan is notoriously repressive.
The Uzbek government continues to use a state-order system of cotton production underpinned by forced labour of children and adults, despite international condemnation including by the United Nations.
The last harvest the government of Uzbekistan intensified the use of forced labour.
All government employees - teachers, doctors, and nurses among others - were required to contribute to the cotton harvest under threat of losing their jobs, pay or benefits.
Students and children aged 15 to 18 made up for the shortfall in younger children as authorities reacted to pressure to end the systematic closure of primary schools evident in previous harvests.
The trade committee will invite the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to give an update at its meeting.
Despite Uzbekistan’s commitments to relevant ILO conventions banning the use of forced labour and the worst forms of child labour, it has steadfastly refused to implement the ILO’s recommendation to invite a high-level tripartite mission to observe the harvest, leaving the ILO’s hands tied.
Although seemingly remote from Uzbekistan’s cotton fields, decisions taken in the European Parliament’s committee rooms and the corridors of the commission’s Berlaymont building do matter.
The bulk of Uzbekistan’s cotton, which is picked using forced labour, is exported and ends up in European shops.
The majority of Belgium's cotton imports are from Uzbekistan; Uzbekistan is the second largest supplier of cotton to Italy and Germany; and companies in Turkey, a hub of textile manufacturing for European brands, process Uzbek cotton to a wide extent.
Even at a time of crisis, the EU's 500 million-strong consumer bloc and its position as a leading trade partner is important to a relatively small country like Uzbekistan.
The German ombudsman has called for a boycott of Uzbek cotton, whilst the French National Contact Point for OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises has stated unequivocally that the trade in cotton produced by forced child labour constitutes a flagrant violation of the guidelines.
In Brussels, the parliament has so far acted as the sole body representing Europe’s conscience on the issue, voting overwhelmingly in December 2011 to block the textile agreement between the EU and Uzbekistan on human rights grounds.
In so doing, the parliament answered the call of European consumers and retailers who, together with human rights NGOs, European schoolchildren, employers and trade unions and Uzbek diaspora groups, are increasingly standing up against this practice.
By contrast Europe’s trade commissioner Karel de Gucht has remained silent.
It is time that the commission's DG Trade investigates the evidence that its rules on trade preferences are being violated by Uzbekistan and remove those benefits.
Doing so would not only put into practice the commitment to "make trade work for human rights" in the EU Global Human Rights Strategic Framework adopted last summer.
It would also ensure trade preference rules are applied fairly, thereby boosting the integrity of this incentive-based system.
The mass mobilisation of children and adults under threat of penalty - including dismissal from work, the loss of salary, pensions and welfare benefits - is a serious and systematic violation of core ILO standards and therefore technically meets the EU’s criteria for the suspension of preferences.
Yet forced labour on the scale practised in Uzbekistan is a political, not a technical issue.
The EU needs to use its leverage as a consumer and major trading partner to send the message that systematic use of state-sponsored forced labour is unacceptable.
Parliament should use this meeting to ask commissioner De Gucht to answer the call of citizens from across Europe and open an investigation into Uzbekistan’s status as a beneficiary of trade preferences.
When political change inevitably comes to Uzbekistan, the Uzbek people will remember if Europe did everything it could to help end their servitude.
The answer may well shape their attitudes towards Europe long after President Islam Karimov has left the scene.
Until that time, the EU can at least ensure that its action matches its stated policies on human rights.