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Is free trade all that it's cracked up to be? A recent ruling shows our country's support for free trade could be on a collision course with U.S. laws that protect the environment and workers' health and safety.The ruling at issue was made last month by a General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade panel, which found that a U.S. dolphin-protection law violates global free-trade rules.

Mexico had brought the U.S. law to the attention of the international trade group because its tuna products were being embargoed by the United States. The United States had banned the products because Mexican fleets have used tuna-fishing practices that killed some 50,000 of the endangered dolphins annually, vastly more than what the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act allows.

At first glance, the issue might not seem important. Congress, after all, has voted to ignore the GATT ruling and not change the law. And GATT trade bureaucrats can't force our country to comply. Even Mexico, which could ask GATT to rule for damages from the United States, appears to have backed off. The issue has created adverse publicity for that country, which it is afraid could harm ongoing negotiations for a free-trade treaty with the United States.

However, the ruling remains important, and for many reasons. The United States is one of GATT's biggest cheerleaders. Except in the case of a sugar quota concerning Nicaragua, the United States had always voted to change laws found in violation of GATT. For our country to defy a GATT ruling is an embarrassment to U.S. free-trade advocates, as well as a slap in GATT's face.

The issue also is important because environmental, consumer and labor groups see it as setting a dangerous precedent. These groups have long warned GATT rules could erode U.S. laws protecting health and safety.

The groups have good reason to fear. Canadian asbestos producers have challenged our nation's asbestos ban, saying it restricts the U.S.-Canadian free-trade agreement. And challenges have gone the other way: For example, U.S. metal smelters have challenged Canadian incentives given to smelters for installing pollution control devices.

Consumer and other advocates are calling for GATT to be reformed so that it takes into account countries' safety and environmental concerns. That seems like a good idea. GATT originally was created to reduce protective tariffs and other price barriers. Environmental and workers' concerns were not as much an issue as they are now.

Free trade is vital for a healthy economy. But it shouldn't endanger nations' actions to protect endangered species or to take other steps that make for a more livable world.


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