What the WTO victory means for animal welfare beyond the international seal trade

When Canada and Norway complained about the EU’s 2009 seal trade ban to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the international trade body of 159 countries, we were very unsure as to what eventual outcomes might be. In a few cases it had ruled on the relationship between trade and public morality concerns, but never before had this international trade court taken on a case, let alone made a judgment, about animal welfare.

RELATED:WTO supports EU ban on seal products: What needs to happen next?

Most trade specialists would have argued that in the absence of any clear provisions in trade law about what a country can or cannot do relating to banning trade of cruel products, the general rule would apply: Products that look the same, cannot be differentiated just on the basis of the way they are produced, cruel or animal-friendly…they should be allowed onto the market.

Any exemption where the reason is to protect animals had never been tested...until now.

Watch IFAW EU Regional Director Sonja Van Tichelen discuss how this WTO decision has set a global precedent for animal welfare and trade regulations. 


The WTO Appellate Body’s ruling on Canada and Norway’s subsequent appeal to WTO compliancy regarding the EU seal ban therefore has been a major victory for animal welfare around the globe.

Essentially, the WTO found that non-trade concerns, such as animal welfare, the basis of the seal products ban, can restrict trade and still be in line with international trade law.

We can conclude heretofore that animal welfare is deemed a matter of public morality, and trade bans can be used to protect animal welfare.

This ruling could have broad application as the animal welfare movement gains momentum in helping to shape a more humane society, paving the way for future trade restrictions addressing animal welfare issues.

The European Union, which has some of the strictest animal welfare laws when it comes to food production, could now demand that the same rules apply to imported food, or ban such cruel products from entering the EU. Eggs from barren battery cages, veal meat from calves housed in narrow crates, products tested on animals where alternatives are available are just a few examples of products that the EU could ban.

Some other important aspects of the ruling include:

  • The WTO accepted the EU’s argument that the risk of inhumane sealing is impossible to eliminate. They also allowed that the ban’s other aim — to reduce demand globally, and therefore reduce inhumane sealing in general — is in line with international trade law.
  • As predicted, the criteria for the EU’s exception for products from indigenous hunts was deemed too ambiguous, and the exception will need to be reworked. So while the EU ban remains in place, the Inuit and Marine Resource Management exceptions need to be modified slightly. 

IFAW will continue to work with the EU to make any necessary modifications to the legislation by the 2015 deadline.

The EU ban was the result of decades of grassroots opposition to commercial seal hunting in Canada on the basis that it is inherently inhumane.

For decades, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) gathered and submitted evidence of the hunt’s cruelty to Canadian authorities, European politicians and worldwide media. IFAW campaigned to secure the EU ban on products from the Canadian seal hunt and continued to document evidence of the cruelty inherent in this hunt while the case made its way through WTO channels.

Many thanks to IFAW supporters around the world who helped to pass the EU seal products ban as well as to the European Commission lawyers and politicians who have been fiercely defending the legislation.

Working together, IFAW and other NGOs they have demonstrated to the international community that the EU and its citizens mean business when it comes to standing behind its democratically achieved laws, and behind the protection of those who cannot speak for themselves, the animals.


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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
President and Chief Executive Officer
Beth Allgood, Country Director, United States
Country Director, United States
Cynthia Milburn, Director, Animal Welfare Outreach & Education
Senior Advisor, Policy Development
Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation
Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation Program
Faye Cuevas, Esq.
Senior Vice President
Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
Regional Director, Asia
Jason Bell, Vice President for Conservation and Animal Welfare
Vice President for Conservation and Animal Welfare
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
Program Director, Marine Conservation
Sonja Van Tichelen, Vice President of International Operations
Vice President of International Operations
Staci McLennan, Director, EU Office
Director, EU Office
Tania McCrea-Steele, Project Lead, Global Wildlife Cybercrime
Project Lead, Global Wildlife Cybercrime