Landmark WTO case pitting EU animal welfare and public morals versus trade concerns begins Monday in Geneva

Friday, 15 February, 2013
Brussels, Belgium

The first hearing on the EU’s controversial ban on seal products begins Monday in Geneva at the World Trade Organization (WTO). The three members of the WTO’s dispute settlement panel established for this case will hear arguments from Canada and Norway attacking the EU’s ban on the importation and sale of seal products while the EU will submit its initial defence of the ban.

“This case will determine to what extent citizens can influence the societies in which they live.” said Sonja Van Tichelen, IFAW’s European Regional Director. “Can citizens in Europe and elsewhere stop something which concerns them greatly, in this case trading in seal products from the inherently cruel commercial seal industry, or does international trade trump their legitimate concerns?”

The case has been a long time coming. Canada, one of the most active countries at the WTO with 137 cases, threatened to go to WTO dispute settlement from the time the EU ban on seal products was overwhelming approved by the European Parliament in 2009.

Whereas the general principles of the WTO promote trade liberalization and non-discrimination, the rules cater for countries to introduce policies to protect public morality and animal health, as well as other non-trade concerns such as the environment. The WTO panel will thus now be asked to rule whether the EU sales ban violates WTO rules in the first place, an allegation which the EU rightly rejects. If the panel finds such a violation, however, it will have to rule on the question whether the EU’s ban is nonetheless justified because it is necessary to respond to citizens legitimate moral concerns about the welfare of seals.

“IFAW has been observing the hunt and campaigning to end the trade in seal products for over 40 years,” continued Van Tichelen. “We’ve supplied the EU Commission with all of our expertise and footage to protect the sales ban on seal products in the EU.”

A compilation video of examples of cruelty from the 2011 Canadian commercial seal hunt can be found here: Since the ban came into effect a compelling video of cruelty infractions has also come to light in Norway. The footage was taken in 2009 by a Norwegian government sealing inspector who subsequently faced threats for actually reporting the infractions.

“There is overwhelming evidence that it is practically impossible to conduct a humane commercial seal hunt. The EU seal legislation was therefore the only way forward. It represents a huge animal welfare victory and since its approval the number of seals killed in the inherently cruel commercial seal hunts has plummeted,” said Sheryl Fink, IFAW Director, Canada Seals Campaign and veteran seal hunt observer. “We urge the members of the WTO panel to listen to the evidence, watch the images of the seals suffering in so many ways, and draw the only logical conclusion.”

IFAW calls on the EU Commission to continue to stand strong in its defense of this victory of public morality – a democratically achieved and legitimate sales ban on cruel seal products.


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Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
Sheryl Fink, Campaign Director, Canadian Wildlife
Campaign Director, Canadian Wildlife
Sonja Van Tichelen, Vice President of International Operations
Vice President of International Operations