BRUSSELS––The World Trade Organization on November 25, 2013 upheld most of the 2009 European Union ban on the import of seal products, overturning the ban only when applied to “seal products derived from hunts conducted by Inuit or indigenous communities and hunts conducted for marine resource management purposes.”
The WTO ruling allows governments permitting seal hunts the opportunity to redefine commercially motivated massacres as “marine resource management,” but those governments would then have to demonstrate a need for such management that would be persuasive to international regulators.
The WTO held that the exemptions within the EU seal product import ban for the products of aboriginal hunts are “not equally available to all Inuit or indigenous communities” and are “not designed and applied in an even-handed manner.”
Otherwise, the WTO found that the ban “fulfills the objective of addressing the EU public moral concerns on seal welfare to a certain extent, and no alternative measure has been demonstrated to make an equivalent or greater contribution” to satisfying those concerns.
Canadian trade minister Ed Fast announced immediately that Canada “will appeal to the WTO Appellate Body.” Canada “remains steadfast in its position that the seal harvest is a humane, sustainable and well-regulated activity,” Fast said. “Any views to the contrary are based on myths and misinformation and the panel’s findings should be of concern to all WTO members.”
Fast’s statement was echoed in the Canadian House of Commons by fisheries minister Gail Shea and by Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (Inuit Communities United) president Terry Audla. “Inuit have always maintained that the so-called Inuit exemption is an empty box. But our goal from the beginning has been to overturn the ban itself, not merely to modify the terms of the exemption,” Audla said.
“The report from the WTO panel is a victory for seals, animal welfare and Europeans,” said International Fund for Animal Welfare European Union director Sonja Van Tichelen. “EU leaders can be proud that they have simultaneously protected seals, represented the needs of their citizens and respected EU obligations under the WTO. That is not a simple task.”
Added IFAW seal campaign director Sheryl Fink, “This decision is welcomed, and it is significant in that the WTO is recognizing animal welfare as a moral concern that can be legitimately protected through measures such as trade bans. The WTO ruling should send a strong message to the Canadian government and sealing industry. Concerns over the way seals are killed in commercial hunts are found to be justified, and countries may protect their consumers from these concerns by regulating trade in seal products.”
Taking effect in 2010, the European Union seal product import ban was appealed to the WTO by both Canada and Norway. It also applies to seals killed in Namibia. Russia accounted for about 90% of the market for Canadian seal products for several years before 2011. Russia at one time had a domestic seal hunt second only to the Atlantic Canadian hunt in scale. In 2011, however, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and the Russian Federation banned both the import and export of harp seal pelts.
The U.S. banned the import of seal pelts in 1972. Mexico followed in 2006. Taiwan adopted a similar ban in January 2013.
The 2013 Atlantic Canada seal hunt opened with a quota of 400,000, of whom about 91,000 seals were actually killed by the 844 licensed hunters.
‘In the last two years, Newfoundland and Labrador loaned Carino, the sole seal skin processor, more than $7 million in taxpayer money to stockpile seal skins,” said an IFAW statement. “The landed value of Canada’s 2013 commercial seal hunt was about $2.9 million.”
The 2013 Namibian seal hunt, with a quota of 90,000 adult seals and 6,000 pups, may have been bigger that the Atlantic Canada hunt, if the Namibian quotas were met. This is difficult to ascertain, since Namibia seldom releases sealing statistics and the Namibian seal hunt has rarely been witnessed by non-participants.
1st ruling on animal welfare
The 194-nation WTO, established by the United Nations, has never before commented directly on animal welfare in a trade dispute ruling.
New York University School of Law professor Robert Howse, University of Toronto Faculty of Law doctoral candidate Joanna Langille, and Thompson Rivers University Faculty of Law member Katie Sykes in an analysis for the Toronto Globe & Mail called the WTO decision “a landmark vindication of the right to protect animal welfare under international trade law,” and “a resounding defeat” for the Canadian government.
“The EU legislation responded to serious public concerns,” Howse, Langille, and Sykes wrote. “Canada argued that the hunt is humane and that the EU was not sincere in its desire to protect animal welfare. Typically countries bring disputes to the WTO for commercial reasons––because their products are unfairly shut out of a particular market.
“But Canada’s suit was not rooted in commercial considerations; it knew full well that any commercial concessions won would do little to shore up the hunt, as the market for these products has been dwindling for more than a generation,” Howse, Langille, and Sykes continued. “Canada’s real hope was that by getting an independent international body to endorse its view that the hunt was humane, it could win hearts and minds. Or at least it could show that ‘humane’ hunting standards and a labeling scheme were a suitable alternative to ending the hunt.
“But the WTO panel rejected these arguments,” Howse, Langille, and Sykes added. “Canada couldn’t demonstrate that there are real-world alternatives that could verifiably make the commercial seal hunt humane. Thus, Canada’s central claims against the anti-hunt movement have been rejected by an international adjudicative body. This is not threatened by Canada’s appeal, because these are findings of fact by the panel, which the WTO’s Appellate Body does not have power to reverse.
“Canada’s decision to appeal the panel’s ruling continues an unfortunate trend in the government’s foreign policy,” Howse, Langille, and Sykes concluded. “Like Canada’s 2013 campaign to ensure that polar bears were not added to the global endangered species list, the government continues to fight international efforts to protect animal welfare. This trend puts Canada at odds with progressive currents in international law, and leaves the country increasingly isolated.”
Summarized an IFAW legal analysis of the seal product decision, “A common but untested belief of many regulators was that countries were not allowed to impose trade restrictions on the basis of how a product is produced. This view is now challenged with potentially great opportunities for the welfare of animals. Although the EU has other animal welfare based trade restrictions in place, such as a marketing ban for cosmetics tested on animals and a ban on imports of cat and dog fur, the majority of animal welfare laws in the EU impose standards on EU products, but allow the import of products [similar to those banned] from countries with no animal welfare legislation.
“While EU has banned battery cages for egg production, veal crates, and sow stalls,” for example, “consumers may still find products from these systems on the shelves, as legislators have been hesitant and worried” lest the WTO overturn any attempt to exclude them.
“The WTO decision to uphold the ban should be taken very seriously by all sustainable use industries, as it may particularly have broad and unintended impacts for other trade sectors in Canada,” warned Seals & Sealing Network chair Dion Dakins. “Where do we draw the line on right versus wrong or good versus bad when it comes to the products of living resources?”
The WTO decision “does have profound implications for other animal industries. And that’s not such a bad thing,” commented Toronto Star national affairs columnist Thomas Walkom. “The WTO’s morals clause dates back to 1946 and was insisted upon by the United States. Codified in Article XX of the 1994 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, it is remarkably broad. It allows signatories to the global pact to pass trade restriction laws necessary for the ‘protection of public morals’ as well as those required to ‘protect human, animal or plant life or health.’
“The only limitations on such bans are that they must be applied equally to all countries and that they cannot act as ‘disguised restriction(s) on international trade.’ Israel, for instance, bans the importation of non-kosher meat.
“Europeans in particular are focusing on animal welfare,” Walkom continued. “Methods of livestock farming that are common in Canada—such as confining pigs and chickens to small pens or keeping calves in tiny crates—are under increasing attack in EU countries.”
The Canadian government, Walkom pointed out, “hopes to use the recently-signed Canada/EU trade treaty to export great quantities of pork and beef to Europe. The WTO sealing decision underlines the contradiction here. Something will have to give.”
Might even affect oil
The implications of the WTO sealing decision may go beyond animal welfare to influence habitat issues.
Mused Michael Babad, editor of the Toronto Globe Mail Report on Business, “Seals, asbestos, and oil. As a Sesame Street character might put it, one of these things is not like the other. Yet. The seal hunt still has some advocates, because someone is still buying this stuff. Not so for the asbestos industry, which died amid international pressure because asbestos causes cancer and was banned by several developed countries in the face of staunch support by the Canadian government.
“Which leaves oil, the elephant of the three,” Babad wrote, “thriving but under pressure on several fronts, particularly where the Alberta oil sands are concerned. Canada is fighting an EU proposal that would label oil sands crude dirty, and at the same time is fighting for U.S. approval of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.” ––Merritt Clifton