November 24, 2013 2:09 pm

WTO panel to report on EU seal products ban

The World Trade Organization has ruled that while the European Union ban on imported seal products does undermine fair trade, those restrictions can be justified on "public moral concerns" for animal welfare.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – Advocates both for and against Canada’s commercial seal hunt will be watching Monday as the World Trade Organization rules on the European Union’s ban on imported seal products.

It’s a case that affects hunters in Atlantic outports and Inuit communities who say the embargo unfairly discriminates against seal products from Canada.

The ban is hailed by animal welfare activists and has drawn Hollywood star power from the likes of actors Jude Law and Pamela Anderson who want it upheld.

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The decision from a WTO dispute settlement panel in Geneva will highlight whether animal welfare is a public morals concern that can justify trade restrictions.

At issue is a challenge by Canada and Norway of the 28-member EU’s 2010 ban on the import and sale of seal fur, meat, blubber and other products.

The dispute pits those who say commercial hunts are a humane and sustainable way to make cash while controlling seal populations against those who say they’re a cruel and needless “slaughter.”

The EU ban exempts seal products resulting from Inuit or other aboriginal hunts, along with those carried out solely to manage seal populations and protect fish stocks.

But Terry Audla, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami representing about 55,000 Canadian Inuit, said 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?”

Audla said the EU exemption for his people is a meaningless “empty box” under a ban that essentially wipes out European markets.

“The value of the pelt, the value of the product is diminished. The trade routes, the export, all of that is pretty much taken away.”

Details leaked in October of the WTO’s confidential interim report suggest Monday’s decision from the WTO dispute settlement panel will be mixed. The Seals and Sealing Network, a Canadian industry group, says preliminary findings were that the EU ban violates WTO rules by unfairly discriminating between Canadian and Norwegian seal products and those from Europe and other countries.

But the interim report also found that the ban could be justified under an exception meant to protect “public morals.”

Claude Rochon, a spokeswoman for the federal department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, said Canada’s stance is that the EU embargo violates Europe’s WTO obligations.

“The Atlantic and northern seal harvests are humane, sustainable and well-regulated activities that provide an important source of food and income for coastal and Inuit communities,” she said in an email.

Sheryl Fink, wildlife campaigns director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said her group has campaigned against Canada’s commercial seal hunt since 1969.

Most people accept the humane and sustainable use of animals, she said from Guelph, Ont. “The question is whether we need to conduct the large-scale exploitation of wildlife for profit to supply international markets in fur, bones, skins.

“These are not activities that are necessary for human existence. They’re done for luxury products, for profit.”

About 900,000 seals are hunted around the world each year, according to the European Commission. Countries that have commercial hunts include Canada, Norway, Greenland and Namibia.

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.

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

A European Union 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 will have 60 days to appeal Monday’s findings from the WTO dispute panel.

© The Canadian Press, 2013

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