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November 26, 2013

The Jury is in for Animals at the WTO

There has been a seismic shift on the international legal front for animals this week. Unknown to most Americans, the World Trade Organization 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 heath – long treating value-based standards of that nature 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 Humane Society International and The HSUS have developed a premier team of political and legal experts who work tirelessly to push the WTO toward humane decisions.

Seal pup
Frank Loftus/HSI

I am pleased to report that yesterday our team scored a huge victory when the WTO issued perhaps its most animal-friendly decision to date, upholding the right of the European Union to prohibit trade in the products of commercial seal hunts for humane reasons.

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 HSI/HSUS team made a significant contribution to this victory by providing video evidence during the WTO hearings of the inherent cruelty of commercial sealing and by filing an amicus brief that the EU lawyers attached to their submissions for consideration by the panel.

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 world 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.

Yesterday's 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 Obama administration 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 we 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, our lawyers and policy experts will be hard at work at the WTO Ministerial Conference next month and 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.

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