By Wayne Pacelle
As 2014 begins, there is encouraging news to report on efforts to protect seals.
Because of Humane Society International (HSI)'s work to close markets for seal products, prices for seal fur in Canada have declined dramatically. As a result, in 2013 Canadian hunters fell shy of their allowable quota of seals by more than 300,000 individuals.
Also in 2013, following a multi-year campaign in collaboration with HSI's Taiwanese partner, EAST, Taiwan became the first Asian nation to ban trade in marine mammal products — including seal products.
And, a World Trade Organization (WTO) panel upheld the European Union's right to prohibit the trade in seal products for animal-welfare reasons, a ban secured by HSI and our partners in 2009. This sets a crucial precedent not only for other countries considering seal-product trade bans, but also for animal welfare in general as it pertains to global trade: This is the first time the WTO has ruled that animal welfare is an issue of public moral concern and is a legitimate reason to restrict trade.
HSI provided key evidence in support of the EU ban, submitted an amicus (friend of the court) brief to the WTO panel, and our video evidence of cruelty in recent seal slaughters was broadcast during the WTO hearings.
The European Court of Justice, the highest court in Europe, also rejected an appeal by commercial sealing representatives of an earlier ruling by the European General Court. That decision left intact the right of the EU to ban seal-product trade — a move that aligns with the views of the 86 percent of Canadians who oppose the commercial seal hunt.
All of these victories represent a seismic shift on the international legal front for animals. Unknown to most Americans, the WTO in Geneva sets the rules-of-the-road on trade matters and regularly renders far-reaching decisions that affect the ability of nations to pass laws to protect animals, the environment and public health — long treating such value-based standards as barriers to trade. This little-understood international body has the power to judge which domestic laws protecting animals are consistent with free-trade agreements, and which laws cannot stand.
It's a staggering amount of power for one body to wield over the fate of millions of animals, and that's why HSI and The HSUS have developed a premier team of political and legal experts who work tirelessly to push the WTO toward humane decisions.
Their recent ruling is its most animal-friendly decision to date.
The EU ban on the sale of seal products, instituted in 2009, had been challenged at the WTO by Canada and Norway as violating international trade rules. In essence, the pro-sealing countries argued that animal cruelty is not a sufficient reason to ban the trade in seal products. The WTO panel largely rejected their claims of discriminatory treatment, finding fault merely with certain exceptions to the ban.
The WTO specifically found that the EU ban is consistent with WTO rules because it fulfills the legitimate objective of addressing EU's citizens' moral concerns with regard to animal welfare and that no alternative measure would suffice. The key to the panel's decision was its findings that, "animal welfare is an issue of ethical or moral nature in the European Union" and that, "animal welfare is a matter of ethical responsibility for human beings in general.
While the truth of these statements may seem obvious, it is hard to overstate the importance of their acceptance on a global legal stage. Seen more narrowly, this is a great win for seals and a huge setback for the government of Canada in its efforts to turn back the clock on sales of seal pelts to the EU.
This ruling will reassure any country considering an animal-welfare measure that it has much less to fear from a WTO challenge than it did before. It also improves the outlook for hundreds of state and federal animal-protection laws that had an uncertain future because of the consequences of unfettered trade.
This win for animals comes on the heels of much more troubling WTO ruling last year, holding that the U.S. "dolphin-safe" labeling law provides "less favorable treatment" to Mexican tuna products in violation of international trade rules. In the wake of that ruling, the administration of U.S. president Barack Obama had a choice to make: It could relax the law's requirements with respect to setting tuna nets on dolphins, which would be sure to please the Mexican tuna fisheries stubbornly clinging to this antiquated practice, or it could expand the scope of the dolphin-safe law in order to comply with the WTO report, while leaving intact a strong prohibition on setting nets on dolphins.
Fortunately, the administration chose the latter, and conservationists rejoiced on behalf of the dolphins.
Unfortunately, Mexico recently requested another hearing at the WTO, claiming that the dolphin-safe law still runs afoul of WTO principles. Much like Canada, Mexico continues to try to profit from cruel practices that are out-of-touch with modern sensibility and push the products of this cruelty into markets that don't want them.
In the meantime, HSUS lawyers and policy experts were hard at work at the recent WTO Ministerial Conference, and will be into the future, making sure free-trade principles do not run roughshod over the patchwork of domestic humane regulations, which are the only thing standing between millions of animals and a whole panoply of unspeakable cruelty and abuse in the more than 150 member countries that make up the WTO. More....