GENEVA, May 22- The 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 World Trade Organization’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 in November issued a similar ruling.
But that decision was put on ice after Canada and Norway appealed.
Like the disputes settlement panel, the 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.
Brussels argues that the EU public strongly favours 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.
Norway and Canada have deployed counter-arguments from scientists to try to knock down EU claims that such methods are cruel, insisting that they are no worse than those used in commercial deer-hunting, which is widespread in the EU.
The countries both kill tens of thousands of seals per year, and say hunting is a practice stretching back centuries.
The EU ban applies to commercial hunting from Norway as well as the Canadian provinces of Newfoundland, Labrador and Quebec.
All told, 6,000 people hunt seals commercially in Canada, chiefly in Newfoundland.
The EU ban does contain exceptions for Canada’s indigenous Inuits and Inuvialuit peoples from the province of Nunavut, but they argue that the market for their seal products has been seriously affected by the overall embargo.