GENEVA, May 6 (Reuters) - Former South African Trade Minister Alec Erwin will lead a World Trade Organization panel appointed to judge a landmark trade dispute over Australia's anti-tobacco laws, the global trade body said on Tuesday.
Erwin, a former trade unionist and member of the South African Communist Party, will chair a three-strong panel whose other members are Swiss law professor Francois Dessemontet and Billie Miller, a former foreign minister of Barbados.
The appointments mark the opening of a widely-watched legal argument, with Australia championing stronger tobacco control measures and Cuba, Indonesia, Honduras, Dominican Republic and Ukraine determined to stop it.
Australia's "plain packaging" laws that ban colourful logos on tobacco packaging are seen by public health advocates as heralding a new era of tobacco control, and other countries are expected to enact similar laws if Australia wins the case.
Australia says its laws are legitimate for public health. Opponents say they unnecessarily restrict trade and infringe tobacco firms' intellectual property rights.
Both supporters and opponents say such restrictions could spread to alcohol and unhealthy foods, making the WTO case far more wide-reaching than Australia's own tobacco policies.
According to official WTO rules, the panel should give its ruling within six months, but in practice many disputes have dragged on far longer, and both sides can appeal.
The dispute is the largest in the 20-year history of the Geneva-based trade body, with 32 WTO members - including the 28 country European Union - registered as third parties with an interest in the outcome.
Erwin, seen as one of the most effective ministers in the government of Thabo Mbeki, handled years of trade negotiations with the EU and presided over new competition legislation and a law to regulate the liquor industry.
He also handled agricultural trade talks with Zimbabwe, where protection of South Africa's tobacco industry from cheap Zimbabwean imports became a sticking point. In the same cabinet, Health Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who is now head of the African Union, courted controversy by declaring war on smoking.
Erwin went on to become minister of public enterprises from 2004 to 2008 and has previously served on a WTO panel that ruled on a dispute over Canadian renewable energy.
Dessemontet has also previously judged a WTO dispute, in a case brought by the European Union against the United States in 2000. (Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Ruth Pitchford)