Recent reports of a Russian ban on imports of seal products brought to the fore issues of trade, animal rights and domestic policy space in the context of WTO obligations. The reports referred to a document on the WTO website that indicated a trade ban. I was not able to get my hands on this document from the website.
The Globe and Mail reported that a Russian ban would severely effect the Canadian seal industry:
"Russia and two of its neighbours have informed the World Trade Organization that they are banning the import and export of harp seal pelts – a move that animal-rights activists are celebrating as the death knell of Canada’s commercial seal industry."
The reports of the ban have been covered here, here and here. The supporters of the ban claim that this would bring the cruel, inhuman slaughter of clubbing seals for their fur to an end. Canadian Government and others opposing the ban claim that the methods used are scientific and humane and that the ban could adversely affect communities that rely on this trade for their livelihood. In terms of trade, this is a major blow to Canadian seal exports as Russian markets constitute 90% of the market share of seal exports from Canada.
The European Union has already passed regulation banning seal trade which has been challenged by Canada in the WTO in 2009.
The European Union justified the ban accordingly:
"The European Union is concerned about the animal welfare aspects of the seal hunt. Doubts have been expressed about some of the methods used for hunting seals, such as shooting, netting and clubbing, that can cause avoidable pain and distress. Several EU Member States were considering, or had already introduced, national legislative measures to ban the import and use of seal skins and seal products. In the light of these concerns, on 16 September 2009 the European Parliament and the Council adopted a Regulation banning the trade in seal products in the European Union. It applies to seal products produced in the EU and to imported products. The aim of the Regulation is to ensure that products derived from seals are no longer found on the European market. The Regulation was published in the Official Journal on 31 October 2009, entering into force on 20 November 2009. The ban itself entered into force 9 months after the entry into force of the Regulation (i.e. 20 August 2010).
The Regulation foresees limited exemptions to respect the fundamental economic and social interests of Inuit and other indigenous communities. It also contains exceptions for goods derived from seals for personal and non-commercial use and for goods derived from seals hunted for the sole purpose of the sustainable management of marine resources on a not-for profit basis and for non-commercial reasons."
The Regulation relating to the ban on imports of seal products states that "the placing on the market of seal products shall be allowed only where the seal products result from hunts traditionally conducted by Inuit and other indigenous communities and contribute to their subsistence."
Hence, all commercially exploited seal products are banned in the European member countries. Thus, barring the seal products from traditional communities, imports of seal products obtained by all other methods (whether scientific, humane or inhuman) are banned in the European Union. Recognising that there may be methods of humane killing of seals for obtaining their products, the European Union regulation laid down that "although it might be possible to kill and skin seals in such a way as to avoid unnecessary pain, distress, fear or other forms of suffering, given the conditions in which seal hunting occurs, consistent verification and control of hunters’ compliance with animal welfare requirements is not feasible in practice or, at least, is very difficult to achieve in an effective way, as concluded by the European Food Safety Authority on 6 December 2007."
Iceland joined Canada in opposing this ban asserting that though the Intuit community (local indigenous community) practices were exempt from the ban, in reality they were effected.
Animal welfare groups like this one and this one have for long protested against the trade in seal products and have claimed victory on the latest ban by Russia as a step in the right direction. PETA also has high profile stars to campaign against the trade.
The European Union ban and now the Russian ban has made Canada look for markets elsewhere. And where else but the largest growing market - China.
It was reported that the Chinese market promises to provide the much needed relief to the Canadian seal industry in view of the latest ban in Russia which hitherto constituted 90% of the Canadian seal trade.
The issue of the ban on seal products raises many interesting questions:
1. Whether the ban of this nature is violative of a member country's WTO obligations under the TBT and GATT Agreements? Is it not a barrier to trade?
2. Are issues of animal welfare, environment protection and other non-trade considerations germane and permissible barriers to trade? Would it lead to imposition of "subjective" barriers to trade? Are there universal, international standards in this regard?
3. Do the WTO agreements, which focus on promoting trade and reducing barriers to trade, permit considerations of animal rights to determine permissible policies?
4. How should the WTO decide in a case of the right to livelihood of communites engaged in trade vis a vis a ban based on certain principles of animal welfare and environment protection?
5. Are the principles of human rights, labour rights, animal rights, environment concerns relevant in the rule-based determination of right and obligations of the WTO?
6. With multiple stakeholders involved in this issue (in the case of Canada, the commercial seal traders, intuit community members, consumers, animal right activists and the Government of Canada), whose interest does the Canadian Government represent at the WTO? Is that decision the prerogative of the Canadian Government? This issue is symptomatic of many disputes that arise in the WTO.