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Canada, Norway defend seal hunt at WTO this week

Canada and Norway made their initial arguments yesterday at the World Trade Organization against the European Union’s 2009 ban on seal products. Their performances were immediately attacked by animal rights activists watching the proceedings from WTO headquarters in Geneva.

“In direct opposition to the will of Canadians, my government is serving as an industry shill at this WTO hearing,” said Rebecca Aldworth, executive director of Humane Society International Canada, in a press statement. “From failing to disclose links between the fur trade and the veterinary expert it cites, to baseless attacks on the scientific studies cited by the EU in its defense, the Canadian delegation distorted facts consistently throughout its presentation.”

Canada and Norway decided to challenge the EU seal ban at the WTO almost immediately after the popular European measures were implemented in 2010, claiming they are illegal technical barriers to trade and in violation of GATT non-discrimination rules. Both countries, “which every year kill tens of thousands of seals,” according to AFP, “insist that the hunting method is ethical and asked the WTO to review the 2010 ban, imposed because of what the EU considers cruel hunting methods.”

The European Parliament voted overwhelmingly (550 to 49) in 2009 to ban the import and sale of seal products. The subsequent regulations exempt “the placing on the market of seal products which result from hunts traditionally conducted by Inuit and other indigenous communities and which contribute to their subsistence.” According to HSI/Canada, the United States, Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Mexico and Taiwan have also prohibited trade in some or all seal products. But Canada’s WTO case focuses entirely on the EU, to the great annoyance of many Members of the European Parliament.

“This pointless attack on the democratic rights of European citizens to choose which products we place on our market is doomed to failure and a colossal waste of millions of Canadian tax dollars,” said David Martin, a Scottish socialist who sits on the EU trade committee. Martin is one of more than 100 MEPs who have signed an open letter promising not to approve the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) while the WTO case is still active.

It will be months before we know whether the WTO agrees with Canada that the seal ban is an illegal technical barrier to trade, which the Government of Canada describes generally as the use of “regulations and standards as an alternative, and less transparent means of restricting the entry of foreign products.” For example, Canada claims the seal product ban violates Article 2.1 of the TBT agreement (among others), which says (emphasis mine):

Members shall ensure that technical regulations are not prepared, adopted or applied with a view to or with the effect of creating unnecessary obstacles to international trade. For this purpose, technical regulations shall not be more trade-restrictive than necessary to fulfil a legitimate objective, taking account of the risks non-fulfilment would create. Such legitimate objectives are, inter alia: national security requirements; the prevention of deceptive practices; protection of human health or safety, animal or plant life or health, or the environment. In assessing such risks, relevant elements of consideration are, inter alia: available scientific and technical information, related processing technology or intended end-uses of products.

It’s not clear whether the WTO will care whether the seal hunt is inhumane or not, or that the ban is supported by a majority of Europeans. The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), which was instrumental in securing the EU ban, points out that trade restrictions can be justified to protect “public morality,” and suggests the WTO “recognizes that sometimes ethics, values, and protecting both animals and people are more important than money.” But the record on technical barriers to trade cases is not good.

In 2006, the WTO decided that a de facto EU-wide ban on genetically modified crops from North America was an illegal TBT but Europe ignored it. Dolphin-safe tuna labelling in the United States, another environmental protection and consumer awareness measure, has also been knocked down at the WTO. So has U.S. Country of Origin Labelling for meat products, which fell last year to a WTO challenge by Canada claiming the labelling scheme was too onerous.

HSI/Canada is proposing that Canada drop its WTO challenge and implement a federal buyout of the Canadian commercial sealing industry.

“This plan would involve ending the seal hunt, providing immediate compensation for sealers, and investing in economic alternatives in the communities involved. Polling shows broad support for the idea amongst sealers and all Canadians.”

Both HSI and IFAW are tweeting updates on the hearings this week from Geneva. Follow Sheryl Fink, director of the IFAW seal campaign, @IFAWCanada or @SherylFink, and @HSI_Canada or Jo Swabe, EU director for HSI @joswabe for regular updates.