Swaziland faces exclusion from us trade body over rights record

The US government has put Swaziland's duty free access to the world's largest economy on review, after a deadline to address rights issues in the impoverished southern African Kingdom passed.

The US embassy in Mbabane said that after asking that the Swazi government meet five rights "benchmarks", "based on what was accomplished... the process of determining Swaziland's eligibility is underway."

The Africa Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA) allows countries in sub-Saharan Africa preferential access to the US market, and has become a vital economic lifeline for small economies like Swaziland.

The absolute monarchy, ruled by King Mswati III, has seen its textile sector grow enormously thanks to the deal. The sector employs over 17,000 people, jobs which are at risk if Swaziland is excluded from AGOA.

AGOA member-states are expected to improve the rule of law, human rights, and labour regulations - issues closely watched by members of the US Congress who question why undemocratic countries should benefit from what amounts to a US subsidy.

Swaziland has a poor rights record, where pro-democracy activists are often detained and charged with terrorism.

Political parties have been banned in the country since 1973.

The US government had set a May 15 deadline for the government to meet the benchmarks to "avoid any ambiguity as to what we consider progress on internationally accepted worker rights issues."

Government spokesperson Percy Simelane insisted Swaziland was doing everything possible to retain its AGOA status. - Sapa-AFP