The World Trade Organization has recently decided to uphold a ban on seal products implemented by the European Union, much to the delight of many animal activist groups. Sheryl Fink, the Canadian Wildlife Programs Director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, has said that the ruling marks a great day for animal welfare, a statement which was reaffirmed by Sonja Van Tichelen, the European Union Regional Director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. The basis of the World Trade Organization’s ruling was that moral considerations, in this case concerns over animal welfare, provide an adequate foundation on which to justify trade restrictions.
The main opponents of the ban are the governments of Canada and Norway, both of which allegedly used every technical argument possible in order to prevent the ban from taking effect. The ban on seal products includes meat, coats, gloves, and boots, and has been heavily criticized by sealing groups who rely on income derived from the sale of seal products. Particularly vehement in their opposition to the ban are various Inuit groups throughout Canada, who oppose the ban on economic and traditional grounds despite the fact that the ban clearly exempts Inuit and indigenous communities. In fact, the ban on seal products enacted by the European Union contains two other significant exceptions, as it allows for marine resource management, and for travelers to purchase seal products abroad.
The effects of the ban could be particularly profound in Canada, where the seal hunt provides employment for up to 6,000 people annually, and where seal meat is the major source of nutrition for many of Canada’s 59 000 Inuit. In fact, the Canadian seal hunt has been estimated to have an annual value of approximately $40 million. The Canadian government, who claims that seal hunting in Canada is done in an ethical and sustainable fashion, has sued the World Trade Organization in the past on the grounds that the European Union ban on seal products is discriminatory, particularly against Canadian seal products. In order to support their position, the Canadian government have often pointed to the Atlantic harp seal population which, at an estimated size of seven million, is approximately triple the size of the Atlantic harp seal population of the 1970s.
The ruling by the World Trade Organization to uphold the ban on seal products has been seen by certain animal rights and public health activists as a sign that the European Union is not about to water down its regulations in an attempt to facilitate trade with the United States, a worry that has long plagued said activists. The International Fund for Animal Welfare was similarly relieved by the World Trade Organization’s ruling, particularly as they had contributed to the proceedings with two Amicus briefs and by organizing expressions of public outrage. In fact, the pressure maintained by lobbyist groups in Europe has caused Leona Aglukkaq, the Canadian Environment Minister, and member of the Arctic Council, to say in a statement that the recently upheld ban on seal products in the European Union was nothing more than a political decision with no basis in science or facts.
By Nicholas Grabe