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WTO rejects appeal against EU seal import ban

GENEVA--The World Trade Organization (WTO) on Thursday upheld a European Union ban on imports of seal products, rejecting an appeal by Canada and Norway, in a landmark ruling that said animal welfare can trump trade.

The WTO's appellate body said that Brussels did not breach the rules of global commerce when it imposed its ban in 2010.

The global body has never before issued a final decision on how to square animal welfare with international trade regulations, and observers have said the case therefore marks a watershed.

The WTO's disputes settlement panel — which like the appellate body is made up of independent trade and legal experts — had issued a similar ruling last November, but Norway and Canada appealed.

“The Appellate Body upheld the Panel's finding that the EU Seal Regime is 'necessary to protect public morals,'” the WTO said in a statement Thursday.

The WTO polices global trade accords in an effort to offer its 159 member economies a level playing field, and can authorize penalties against wrongdoers, such as retaliatory tariffs.

But the appellate body, whose decision is final, dashed Canada and Norway's hopes of a blow against the EU.

Concerns Over Hunting

Brussels argues that the EU public strongly favors the ban due to concerns over hunting methods such as using a club with a metal spike — a “hakapik” — to stun seals before killing them, and has presented what it says is convincing scientific evidence that such methods are cruel.

Norway and Canada had deployed counter-arguments from scientists to knock down EU claims, insisting that seal hunting is no worse than commercial deer-hunting, which is widespread in the EU.

“Canada's position has been that the eastern and northern seal harvests are humane, sustainable and well-regulated activities that provide an important source of food and income for coastal and Inuit communities,” Trade Minister Ed Fast insisted in a statement.

Like the disputes settlement panel before it, the WTO appellate body ruled that while there was merit in Norway and Canada's complaints that their seal trade was being affected, this was outweighed by the EU goal of addressing moral concerns about seal welfare.

Opponents of allowing the moral argument to stand have argued that it will open a Pandora's box for other countries that want to deploy it.

After the verdict, Canada renewed its criticism of the ban, with the trade minister insisting it was “unfair” and based on “a political decision that has no basis in fact or science.”

Norway meanwhile appeared to be in denial of what the ruling meant.

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