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WTO Ruling on Trade Restrictions to Uphold Public Morals Prompts Concerns

Wednesday, May 28, 2014
Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg Trade Report

A recent World Trade Organization decision could embolden countries to impose new trade restrictions on animal products on the grounds that the environments in which they are produced are inhumane and thus violate public morals, some observers say.

The World Trade Organization Appellate Body ruled this month that the European Union’s ban on the importation and marketing of furs, meat, blubber and other products from seals killed in specific ways has been applied in a discriminatory manner. However, the Appellate Body also determined that the EU may maintain this ban because it is “necessary to protect public morals” and “no alternative measure was demonstrated to make an equivalent or greater contribution to the fulfilment of the objective.” The EU welcomed the confirmation of its right to impose the ban “on moral grounds related to animal welfare,” while complainant Canada praised the finding that an exception to the ban for products of seal hunts by indigenous peoples is “arbitrarily and unjustifiably applied” so as to put products from Canada and Norway at a disadvantage to those of Greenland, Finland and Sweden.

There were other disagreements concerning the impact of the WTO ruling as well. The International Fund for Animal Welfare said it “confirms yet again that animal welfare concerns are a legitimate reason for WTO members to regulate trade” and “provides the WTO with new relevancy by showing it is capable of fairly addressing matters of public moral concern in the future.” Public Citizen, however, argued that the decision actually limits member nations’ ability to regulate in the public interest by concluding that “WTO panels do not need to consider under GATT whether a challenged domestic policy [such as the exception to the EU ban, which is applied unevenly] stems from a legitimate policy objective.” As a result, the group said, the decision “will again spur public ire over WTO rules that extend beyond ‘trade’ to target domestic environmental and consumer safeguards.”

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