Seal product ban in Europe upheld by WTO panel

A young Inuit hunter looks into a seal breathing hole in the sea ice near Clyde River, Nunavut. (Levon Sevunts)
A young Inuit hunter looks into a seal breathing hole in the sea ice near Clyde River, Nunavut. (Levon Sevunts)
A World Trade Organization panel today upheld a European ban against Canadian seal products, even though it found the European Union had also violated international trade rules.

In a written decision, the WTO both supported and rejected an appeal from Canada against a 2010 ban that proved to be devastating for the country’s seal hunt.

The WTO, while finding that the EU’s so-called Seal Regime had violated international trade agreements, has determined that the ban was valid because of a controversial public morals clause.

Canada’s seal industry had been expecting something of a split decision, based on details leaked last month.

The WTO panel zeroed in on exemptions in the 2010 ban that were intended to cover indigenous community and “hunts conducted for marine resource management purposes.”

The panel found the exemptions violated the WTO’s Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement in part because “these exceptions accord imported seal products treatment less favourable than that accorded to like domestic and other foreign products.”

As well, the panel wrote, “such less favourable treatment does not stem exclusively from legitimate regulatory distinctions.”

Despite those findings, the panel backed the ban against seal products, referring to the ongoing outrage that Canada’s seal hunt triggers in Europe.

“The panel found however that the EU Seal Regime does not violate Article 2.2 of the [Technical Barriers to Trade] Agreement because it fulfils the objective of addressing EU public moral concerns on seal welfare to a certain extent, and no alternative measure was demonstrated to make an equivalent or greater contribution to the fulfilment of the objective,” the panel wrote.

A similar decision was filed against a challenge brought against the ban by Norway, another country that allows a commercial seal hunt.

Hypocrisy cited in public morals argument

Seal hunters, Inuit and Canadian politicians have argued that the ban is hypocritical, and that the public morals clause discriminates against one way of killing animals.

Terry Audla, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami representing about 55,000 Canadian Inuit, said in advance of Monday’s decision that the EU’s approach is wrong-headed and “Orwellian.”

“They’re basing it on public morals and, when you do that, then you’re in danger of all the other industries being banned in the same way. I mean, who’s to say what’s more cruel? Industrialized agriculture? The poultry, pork and beef industry?

“Who draws the line?”

Although the Canada’s seal hunt is much smaller than it was years ago, it continues to generate controversy, with groups like the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Humane Society of the United States organizing annual campaigns against it.

The commercial seal hunt off Newfoundland last spring landed about 91,000 harp seals, up from 69,000 the year before but far short of the federal quota of 400,000.

Some countries ban seal item imports

About 900,000 seals are hunted around the world each year, according to the European Commission.

Other countries with commercial hunts include Greenland and Namibia.

Countries with bans on imported seal products include the U.S., Mexico, Russia and Taiwan.

An EU court last year upheld the EU embargo, saying it’s valid because it fairly harmonizes the EU market while protecting the economic and social interests of Inuit communities.

Either side has 60 days to appeal Monday’s findings from the WTO dispute panel.

-with files from The Canadian Press

Related Links:

European Sealskin Ban Affects Sámi Handicraft Workers, Radio Sweden

What the EU seal ban has meant for Inuit communities in the Arctic, Eye on the Arctic

Seal Ban: The Inuit Impact, Eye on the Arctic

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