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April 25, 2013

Defending the EU Seal Product Trade Ban at the WTO

Humane Society International/Canada

Update, April 25, 2013: The European General Court wisely decided to uphold the European Union’s ban on commercial trade in seal products.

The European Union’s 2009 seal product trade ban, a major victory in HSI’s decades-long battle to end commercial seal slaughter, is under siege by two nations that still continue this outdated practice.

Aggressive lobbying by the Canadian sealing industry persuaded the Canadian government to challenge the ban at the World Trade Organization, despite polls showing that 86 percent of Canadians support the EU’s right to pass such a ban.

Norway initiated a similar challenge at the same time.

Both of these moves are aggressive attacks on European democratic processes, and are happening as Canada attempts to negotiate a free trade deal with the EU.

Legislation at issue

The EU legislation challenged by Canada and Norway effectively bans placing commercial seal products on the market in the EU, while exempting products of traditional Inuit seal hunts.*

The European Parliament adopted the ban overwhelmingly in July 2009 after years of public outcry against the brutality of commercial seal hunting. At that time, numerous EU member states had already passed seal product trade bans or were working toward such legislation.

Many other non-EU countries, including the United States; the Customs Union of Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus; Taiwan; Mexico; and Croatia have also passed bans on trade in seal products.

The dispute

The World Trade Organization is a political organization that enables its member governments—159 countries—to work out the trade problems they face with one another.

Canada and Norway both filed complaints with the WTO in November 2009. After failed negotiations, Canada and Norway requested in early 2011 that a panel be established to hear and decide on the dispute.

HSI and other animal protection organizations submitted an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief in January 2013. At the first hearing of the panel, the EU spoke very favorably of this amicus brief and attached it as an exhibit to one of its submissions.

The parties are working on their second written submissions in anticipation of the second hearing of the Panel, scheduled for April 29-30, 2013. We expect the Panel’s final decision around June 2013.

Possible outcomes

Canada and Norway allege that the ban violates provisions of several WTO agreements. If the Panel rules in favor of the EU, the ban on seal product trade will stand.

If it finds in favor of Canada and Norway, the EU can modify the ban accordingly, pay compensation, or risk trade sanctions.

Regardless of the outcome, any party may appeal the decision to the Appellate Body for further hearings.

HSI's position

HSI continues to support the EU ban on trade in seal products and will assist the European Commission in every way possible. HSI representatives attended the first hearing of the panel and are also attending the second hearing.

*There is also an exception for products obtained through small-scale, occasional hunts carried out for marine resources management.

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