Public morals and their protection are certainly a concern for governments, but is the EU abusing its authority in using morality as an excuse to ban trade? The World Trade Organization thinks not, and that should worry all of us.
On May 22nd, the WTO Appellate Body released a long-awaited decision about the EU ban on importation of seal products “to protect public morals”. While activist groups were quick to trumpet victory, it will take some time to understand the full impact of this complex 250-page judgment.
Nonetheless, it is clear that this ruling will have far-reaching implications for anyone involved with animal production or trading in animal-based products.
On the positive side, the ban (implemented in 2010) was condemned by the WTO’s highest authority for “arbitrary and unjustifiable discrimination” against products of other countries, and the EU was instructed to amend its legislation accordingly.
The main issue here is an exemption for Inuit hunters. The WTO noted that “virtually all” Greenlandic (i.e., EU) seal products benefitted from this indigenous exemption while the “vast majority” of Canadian seal products did not.
It therefore found that the ban was discriminatory against Canada. In reality, the exemption did little for Inuit hunters anywhere, because the ban (and related campaigning) eroded markets for all seals. (1)
The real goal of the exemption was to provide cover for activists and EU politicians, since concern for indigenous rights is almost as politically correct as animal rights among the chattering classes, in theory at least.
The WTO, to its credit, saw through the ruse and denied that such racially or culturally defined exemptions “can be reconciled with, or is related to, the policy objective of addressing EU public moral concerns regarding seal welfare”.
The EU was hoisted by its own petard. If the way in which seals are hunted is so morally repugnant that a trade ban is justified, how can these same hunting methods be acceptable when employed by Inuit people? It will be interesting to see how the EU responds.
Of much greater importance, however, is that the WTO accepted the EU’s claim that trade restrictions based on animal-welfare concerns can be justified “to protect public morals”.
Until now, the WTO has refused to tolerate any ban based on the “means of production”. And for good reason: Say goodbye to world trade if countries can ban each other’s products because they don’t agree with their worker-safety regulations, environmental-protection controls – or now, animal-welfare concerns. (2)
No wonder that animal activist groups are cheering: a brave new world of political campaigning has just opened for them!
“This is a very exciting development,” gushed Sheryl Fink, director of Canadian wildlife campaigns for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). “Hopefully it will have positive repercussions for other animals that are affected by trade as well.” (3) Fur trappers and cattle ranchers take note!
But whose “morality” is really being protected here?
The EU had argued that “because of the way in which seals are killed, the EU public regards seal products from commercial hunts as morally objectionable and is repelled by their availability in the EU market.”
To justify this claim, activists and EU politicians often cite an Ipsos MORI public opinion survey commissioned by Humane Society International (HSI) and IFAW. Conducted in 2011, in 11 countries, the study found that 72% of Europeans supported the import ban on seal products. (4)
The responses to another question in this study, however, are less often quoted. Europeans were asked “how much –if at all – would you say you personally know [about the seal hunt]”. The findings are astounding: 25% of Europeans admitted that they had “never heard of it”.
Another quarter (23%) said they had heard of the seal hunt, but knew “nothing at all”. And another 30% said they knew “not very much”.
In summary: 78% of Europeans say that they know little or nothing at all about the seal hunt. So much for the burning moral issue that justified putting the world trading system at risk!
But despite knowing nothing, 72% of Europeans support the import ban on seal products. That shows what 50 years (sic!) of activist campaigning can do. And it shows why anyone involved with animal production should now be very concerned.
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(1) Inuit leaders have claimed from the start that the exemption for the products from Inuit hunting would not protect their people.
(2) European seal ruling reveals broader tensions over animal rights. By Brendan McGivern, The Globe and Mail, May 26, 2014.
(3) EU seal products ban upheld by WTO, Canada loses appeal. By Sue Bailey, The Canadian Press, May 22, 2014.