Arguing the EU Seal Products Ban (Part II) – The Recent WTO Deliberations

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In Part I, we discussed the 2009 EC ban on the import and sale of Seal products within its borders. This was realized through Regulation (EU) No 1007/2009 and the consequent implementing Commission Regulation (EU) No 737/2010. The regulations prohibit seal products from being sold in the EU common market. The EU feels that inhumane killings, due to a lack of effective supervision of hunts, could be countered through this ban as it reduces the number of individual seals killed by dubious methods.

Norway and Canada, however, have vehemently opposed this ban as seal hunting is an extremely important economic activity in these countries.  Complaints were registered with the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). The ECJ has recently given its verdict upholding the ban. Proceedings at the WTO are still on, and this writer was privileged to witness the most recent (and last) round of deliberations to the case (April 2013).

The most aggressively fought provisions were not on the actual ban of the products but rather the exceptions to the ban. The regulations allow seal products to enter the EU market, if they are derived from the hunts of Inuit or other indigenous communities or for sustainable resource management (SRM) purposes, or if the products were brought in by travellers for personal use. There are substantial checks in place for these exceptions and a notable qualification that such products must not be sold for a profit.

However, both Norway and Canada felt that the indigenous and the SRM exception were really hidden barriers to trade that were created as an advantage to other national hunts (the Greenland hunt being the most hotly argued one). Norway and Canada also questioned why the suffering of the seals did not extend to the exceptions.

What the opposition failed to appreciate is that there must be a balance between indigenous rights and environmental/animal rights. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples mandates that indigenous people have a right to engage freely in their traditional economic activities (Article 20) and develop resources traditionally owned by them (Article 26). Moreover, States must recognize such rights (Article 27) and provide mechanisms to mitigate adverse environmental, economic, social, cultural or spiritual impact from State projects affecting the resources of the indigenous people (Article 32).

The SRM exception on the other hand, is a requirement for the very survival of natural systems and for the benefit of the species. The ‘not for profit’ clause insures that no more than the necessary number of individual seals are killed for sustainable management purposes.

The opposition’s insistence to argue the exceptions is slightly puzzling. The EU can quite easily remove the exceptions, thereby stemming accusations of discrimination. Surely this is counterproductive to even the opposition’s interest. It is difficult to see how a more trade restrictive measure can be desirable to Norway and Canada.

The question also arises as to why seals are considered and other species are not. Norway in its written statement even provides the case of deer hunting within the UK as a proof of the arbitrariness of the regulation.

In a democratic process the legislations often echo the public view. The strong majority in passing this legislation (550 members in favour) would seem to indicate just that. The EU insists this to be reflective of public opinion. Furthermore, choosing a species to protect is the prerogative of the nation and a mark of its sovereignty (although it is desirable that a minimal level of protection is meted out to all creatures alike). That the public may insist on the protection of the seals needs to be necessarily reflected by the legislature.

The argument of arbitrary choice of species may not hold ground given the several hunting practices that have been banned within the European market, such as fox hunting in the UK (regulations and exceptions in The Hunting Act 2004). Moreover, certain hunting practices must be allowed for reasons ranging from the cultural to the economic, as long as such hunts can be properly regulated. To use the Norwegian example of deer hunting in the UK, the hunt is subject to several rules and regulations (Deer Act 1991).

It must also be borne in mind that the objective of the Seal regulation had to do with reducing cruel killing practices rather than banning the killing of seals altogether. Countries are not prohibited from hunting seals but rather by taking away the economic incentive the EU hopes to prevent inhumane excesses.

Rohit Roy

Photo credit: Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons: