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Trade and public morals: The European Union’s ban on seal products

Over the past decades, international animal welfare groups have been strongly advocating for the protection of seals and ultimately for a ban on what they called a cruel and barbaric hunting. Currently, thirty-four countries have implemented legislation banning the trade in seal products.

In the middle of a heated debate, on February and March 2011, Canada and Norway, respectively, requested the initiation of a panel proceeding before the World Trade Organization (WTO) against the European Union’s (EU) ban on seal products (such as oils, furs, and seal meat). The WTO Panel has recently decided on this matter delivering an interesting result.

The EU Regulation on trade in sales products, adopted on September 2009, banned the trade in seal products being applied to products produced in the EU and to imported products. The EU, concerned about the animal welfare aspects of the seal hunt because of the methods used (such as shooting, netting and clubbing) that can cause avoidable pain and distress, enacted the Regulation with the aim of ensuring that products derived from seals are no longer found on the European market.

Of relevance, the EU ban foresees some exemptions: (1) seals products related to fundamental economic and social interest of Inuit and other indigenous communities; (2) goods derived from seals for personal and non-commercial use; and (3) goods derived from seals hunted for the sole purpose of the sustainable management of marine resources and for non-commercial reasons.

The ground for the EU to impose such a trade restriction is based on “public morality”. According to the EU, the ban on seals products is the only means to respond to concerns of citizens and consumers about the animal welfare aspects of the killing and skinning of seals and the possible presence on the market of products obtained from animals killed and skinned in a way that causes pain, distress, fear and other forms of suffering.

In the dispute, Canada and Norway claimed that the ban on seal products was contrary to the EU obligations under WTO rules. In particular, that the EU Regulation was more trade restrictive than necessary to satisfy the objective of promoting public morals and that the exceptions included in the Regulation resulted in discrimination against their products.

In response to the allegations from both sides, the WTO Panel, on 25 November 2013, found that the EU ban indeed fulfills the objective of addressing EU public moral concerns on seal welfare and no alternative measures was demonstrated to make an equivalent or grater contribution to the fulfillment of the objective. However, the Panel also determined that the exceptions on the EU Regulation were discriminatory as they accord imported seals products treatment less favorable than that accorded to like domestic and other foreign products.

The EU could then, modify its Regulation to make it more equal but retaining the trade restrictiveness nature of the ban. The implementation process has not yet started and there exists the opportunity for Canada and Norway to appeal the WTO Panel’s ruling.

Daniela Gomez Altamirano

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