Meet The New Face of the Anti-Trade Agenda

by Henry Farrell on July 20, 2009


I was talking to a friend in the trade policy world this weekend, who told me that he understands that Canada will indeed be taking a “WTO action”: seeking remedy for the EU’s ban on the importation of seal products, imposed because of the perceived cruelty of clubbing baby seals to death so as to get their skins off intact. Apart from the innate merits of the underlying argument (which you can discuss in comments to your heart’s content), this should (unless Stephen Harper loses his job in the meantime and the new government loses interest) really, really have some interesting effects on debates over world trade and globalization. Screw the turtles – when anti-WTO protest groups are able to run full page newspaper ads with adorable baby seal cubs, they’re going to be in a truly excellent position to wage public relations war. All the more so when the Canadian counterposition (that the seals are killed humanely) turns on the legal requirement that the baby seals should have stopped blinking before the hunters start skinning them. Perhaps Stephen Harper should have applied similar attention to the current state of the Doha round – I don’t see it moving around very much at the moment, but it does still blink occasionally. I wouldn’t be surprised if this turns out to be the _coup de grace_ for trade liberalization this decade and the next (which does not, of course, mean that it would be the most important explanatory factor if trade liberalization grinds to a halt, merely one of the significant immediate causes).



Paul 07.20.09 at 2:15 pm

An image like this one often says more than a thousand words !


mart 07.20.09 at 2:37 pm

turns on the legal requirement that the baby seals should have stopped blinking before the hunters start skinning them.

I believe that’s called an Enhanced Clubbing Technique.


Jeff 07.20.09 at 3:02 pm

As a Canadian I find this stuff pretty annoying. Seals are not endangered. Seals have been hunted in this manner by the Inuit for over 4,000 years. The method of killing is no more inhumane than any other slaughtering of animals. It is certainly more humane than the treatment of bulls in Spain – a truly repulsive practice. If these people are vegans and are against all slaughter, then fine, but singling out the seal hunt because the animal is cute is just silly.

“The harp seal question is entirely emotional. We have to be logical. We have to aim our activity first to the endangered species. Those who are moved by the plight of the harp seal could also be moved by the plight of the pig – the way they are slaughtered is horrible.”
-Jacques Cousteau


CB 07.20.09 at 3:06 pm

Just so you know, the hunting of seal pups (whitecoats) like the one in the image above is illegal since 1987.


William Sjostrom 07.20.09 at 3:44 pm

This is hardly new. It was in 1979 that the Journal of Political Economy published “Anti Sealing as an Industry”, by Jeremiah Allen, working through, among other things, the industry cycle since the 1960s.


Min 07.20.09 at 4:16 pm

In Western civilization the nation state replaced the feudal order, and now the nation state is the norm worldwide. The new struggle appears to be between nation states and mulitnational corporations. One view of the future is that states will exist to support The Market and provide subsidies and monopolies (via intellectual property) as a form of tribute to multinationals. The multinationals seem to be winning recent and current battles, in part because of a widespread political denial that there is a war. Greed and Globalization are both considered Good. Subsidies and bailouts are considered as necessities.

For over 200 years there has been a trend within nations towards democracy. The ascendancy of multinationals would threaten democracy, rendering it relatively ineffectual in the economic lives of people. That is because of the lack of effective mechanisms by which the broader group of people with a stake in the actions of multinationals can directly affect those actions. As it is now, even shareholders have little say in those actions.

If Europeans, for whatever reasons, want to express national preferences not to have products made from wild seals, or from seals at all, that should be treated the same as the collective action of individuals not to buy such products. That is different from protecting local seal skinners. It may be true that a minority of Europeans may want to buy such products, but they had a vote. And they still do. They could overturn their legislation.

The main issue is not Free Trade vs. Restricted Trade, but the Multinational Corporation vs. the Nation State and Democracy.


Min 07.20.09 at 4:18 pm

Amendment: I see that I talked about seal products in general. I meant to say new seal products, requiring the slaughter of seals.


mart 07.20.09 at 5:07 pm

This kind of thing is exactly what’s wrong about the Free Trade mantra/WTO. It is hardly the case that we (the EU) are using this to protect our own Seal product industry, it’s that collectively we have a moral objection to the brutal murder of those animals. Now Canadians are free to argue (as above) that our moral objection here is wrong/inconsistent, however I don’t think they should be able to legally challenge regulations put there in good faith. Put another way, should the WTO overturn bans on the trade in Ivory if some people think it’s ok?


Peter 07.20.09 at 5:40 pm

The method of killing is no more inhumane than any other slaughtering of animals. It is certainly more humane than the treatment of bulls in Spain – a truly repulsive practice.

It’s also more humane than the ways animals often are raised on “factory farms.”


Stuart 07.20.09 at 5:50 pm

Could this also work for the alcohol industry and Muslim countries as well? Or maybe the Danish could petition the WTO to let them sell bacon to butchers in Mecca? White rhino horn to little China? Internet gambling access to the US (where based outside the US)? Could have fairly wide ranging consequences.


Matt 07.20.09 at 6:32 pm

Mart- the WTO can’t make the EU remove any regulation. What it can do is authorize Canada to put in place tariffs that are designed to off-set the loss of the EU market share. The EU need not have its own seal products industry, but needs only have items that compete with seal products. (I don’t know what those would be, but it would be a matter for a dispute resolution body panel to consider.) The comparison with the ivory trade isn’t apt because ivory trade is connected to the killing of endangered species while that’s not the case, as far as I understand, with seal products. The WTO agreement has exceptions for the protection of endangered animals and the like. (Some of the other protections arguably ought to apply in cases like this, and may well apply if the case goes to a panel. But, it’s not obvious, for the reasons mentioned above- the brutality, while real, is not clearly more than found in the practices of animal use in many EU countries.) Again, EU countries can keep the ban on seal products if they want, but just will lose the benefit of certain low tariffs in Canada. Since it’s far from clear that the EU has a right to those low tariffs apart from the trade agreement, I don’t see what injustice there might be here. (The parties might well be acting foolishly beyond any injustice, though.)


King Rat 07.20.09 at 6:41 pm

I suspect that if Canada enacted prohibitions on French fois gras on the basis that it was produced in an inhumane manner-and between the two types of animal products, it isn’t even close which is more inhumanely produced-you would very quickly see the EU rediscovering the value of legal challenges to these sorts of restrictions.

Here’s the thing: I and a lot of other Canadians don’t feel that these regulations have been put there in good faith. Let me explain what I mean by that. It’s not a coincidence that the people who are being shafted here are either dirt-poor Atlantic Canadians (I, fwiw, am Atlantic Canadian, but I’m not personally affected by the future of the seal hunt) or the Inuit. The EU makes a pious exemption for the Inuit in the ban, but the Inuit aren’t stupid enough to fall for it-they understand that the overarching ban will render the exception moot by destroying the market. It’s not a coincidence that the market for the one animal being protected is small. It’s not a coincidence that the animal being protected has the evolutionary good fortune to look cute. There is no scientific justification for this ban-it is based entirely in sentiment.

And why I say this is a ban that has been promulgated in bad faith is because that sentiment has been whipped up under false pretenses. As noted above, it hasn’t been legal to kill the whitecoats that are ubiquitous in anti-sealing advertisements and on this page for more than 20 years. Finally, seal culls are not going to stop because the hunt no longer has a commercial component; the Atlantic Canadian fishery is sufficiently imperiled by overfishing-which had a significant European component to it, to put it mildly-that the vibrant seal population is going to be periodically culled in any event, no doubt to more handwringing from the EU.

I also wouldn’t get my hopes up, were I sympathetic to the EU, that a change in government is going to lead to Canada dropping the case. The issue is one of the very few that commands broad support across the Canadian political spectrum; in fact, the Liberal opposition is far more dependent on Atlantic Canadian seats than the current Tory government. That’s not to say it’s central to Canadians or anything, but absent a compelling reason to drop the suit, it isn’t going anywhere.


dsquared 07.20.09 at 6:49 pm

And why I say this is a ban that has been promulgated in bad faith is because that sentiment has been whipped up under false pretenses.

you mean they aren’t clubbed any more?


dsquared 07.20.09 at 6:53 pm

Also, if you’re accusing other people of “false pretences”, you might want to look into the status of your claim of a link between the seal population and the Atlantic cod fishery, which the Department of Oceans and Forestry does not in fact make and in all likelihood doesn’t exist.


King Rat 07.20.09 at 7:13 pm

The ban has not been passed on the basis that the seals are clubbed to death. It’s a ban on seal products, period. The justifications for this particular ban don’t stand up, at least in my view. And while there are certainly many people who sincerely feel the sentiment to which I attribute the push for the ban, there’s an awful lot of cynics as well-hence the ubiquity of whitecoats, a protected class for 22 years, in anti-sealing literature.

As to your second point, the hunt has had a culling component for population management for a long time now-the government has increased the quota recently because of the overall health of the seal population. Here, for example, is a news story citing the government advancing population control as one justification for the hunt. That said, you are right that there does not appear to be a connection between current management of the fishery and the seal hunt. I spoke in anger and misapprehension based on what several fishermen had told me, for which I apologize. That said, a cull seems likely to continue, with or without a commercial hunt, from what I can tell.


mart 07.20.09 at 7:47 pm

I wasn’t trying to argue the technicalities of what the WTO can sanction, so much as the principle of these trade agreements in the first place – I suppose the Ivory analogy wasn’t such a good one, but Stuart made some better ones. If the Canadians wish to prevent imports of similarly dubious EU products I would also have no problem with this. Several comments here have pointed to examples in Europe where animals are also mistreated, but it’s worth bearing in mind that many Europeans also oppose these practices but instead of turning a blind eye to abuses in other countries, surely we should *also* resolve these issues in ours.


mpowell 07.20.09 at 8:08 pm

This is silly. If there were exceptions to the WTO agreement allowing for bans in cases of animal cruelty, there would have been no point to the agreement at all! The exceptions for endangered species, on the other hand, make a lot of sense. But challenges based on cruelty are simply absurd. That’s not to say this won’t generate a lot of publicity for the anti-trade movement, which I think does have some legitimate basis for complaint in general.


Matt 07.20.09 at 8:11 pm

Stuart (and Mart)- white rhino horns are protected under the exceptions for endangered species. Since the seals in question are not endangered, the comparison in inapt.

The US in fact lost a WTO dispute on internet gambling recently. (See here: ) This is actually one of the more interesting cases showing the limits of WTO rules as it’s not clear that the countries (mostly small Caribbean countries) that supplied internet gambling services to US could cause any significant hardship to the US by putting tariffs in place, so the victory might not amount to anything.

GATT article XXa allows for exceptions based on “public morals” that is generally thought to cover bans on alcohol sales in Muslim countries. (I don’t believe it’s ever been tested.) Note that if Muslim countries allowed sale of domestic alcohol but banned imported alcohol, then they would be in the situation of the US in the on-line gambling case, which is part of why the US lost that case.

Now, it’s arguable (and surely will be argued by the EU) that article XXa allows for the ban on seal products. Maybe it should allow for such a ban. I really don’t have a well-informed opinion. But I strongly suspect that the decision will say that 1) seal products compete with products in the EU, and 2) the cruelty to seals is not greater than cruelty accepted by the EU towards other animals. Given those factors I would bet on the EU losing, and would not find this unreasonable, or at least not clearly so. The EU could then decide to keep the ban if it wants, but it will just have to pay for it.


Matt 07.20.09 at 8:13 pm

(I have a comment in reply to Mart and Stuart “awaiting moderation” for unknown reasons. I don’t believe I’ve used a dreaded word, but perhaps so. Anyway, it will hopefully be up soon.)


King Rat 07.20.09 at 8:20 pm

I suppose, incidentally, that I owe a specific apology to mart as exactly the sort of person who supports the seal ban out of sincerely held beliefs. I would say, though, that while mart and similar people no doubt do push to curb things like bullfighting and foie gras production, to say nothing of factory farming, the fact that there’s no possibility of similar EU action on those topics in the foreseeable future speaks to why I’m as embittered on the subject as I am.


Henry 07.20.09 at 8:51 pm

fwiw, my friend’s (very, very expert) understanding of the likely outcomes of the case, should it go ahead, is similar to Matt’s. But given the likely political consequences (especially in the EU, but in the US too), I suspect that this is one that the WTO would prefer vastly never to have to confront in the first place.


will u. 07.20.09 at 8:52 pm

“Anti-Trade Agenda”? Am I reading Crooked Timber or The Economist?


John Quiggin 07.20.09 at 8:52 pm

King Rat, I doubt that a foie gras ban would produce the kind of result you expect and in fact it would be perceived by many as an example of gains from trade (or rather trade regulation). In fact, if the WTO wanted to save what’s left of its role, it would be well advised to allow retaliation of only this kind.

“If there were exceptions to the WTO agreement allowing for bans in cases of animal cruelty, there would have been no point to the agreement at all!”

How so? Such cases appear pretty marginal to the general issue of trade protection. It’s this kind of absolutism that has brought the WTO to the brink of total defeat, though they appear to have woken up in the case of border tariff adjustments for CO2 emissions.


Henry 07.20.09 at 8:58 pm

Will u. – unfortunately, HTML has yet to evolve a set of universally agreed on irony tags. Although I should say that this particular case is not one that I have very strong priors on (which is to say that I am not in favor of clubbing seals, but don’t much like intensive farming/unpleasant production methods etc a la EU member states either). I do hope that if this goes against the EU, the retaliatory tariffs are against foie gras, so that I can write a post entitled ‘Sauce for the Gander.’


mart 07.20.09 at 9:42 pm

@King Rat – I wasn’t offended by anything you said so the apology is redundant, anyway you give me far too much credit there on the activism front! I was just trying to say that plenty of people on this side of the Atlantic care about all sorts of animals being treated better, that we are not arguing in bad faith. As for governments, it is possible that they have ulterior, protectionist motives here (and make no moves to curb bad practices in their own countries), in which case I can understand why you’d be pissed off.


lemuel pitkin 07.20.09 at 9:50 pm

I am not in favor of clubbing seals, but don’t much like intensive farming/unpleasant production methods etc a la EU member states either

Why “but”? Surely bans on baby-seal-clubbing make future regulation of other cruel forms of animal husbandry more likely, not less likely, no?


Matt 07.20.09 at 10:01 pm

Surely bans on baby-seal-clubbing make future regulation of other cruel forms of animal husbandry more likely, not less likely, no?

Maybe, but I’d not be sure. Often things like this, especially when done in relation to the practices of others, allow people to feel less bad about their own bad practices. “We care about animals, after all, we banned the (apparently non-existent*) clubbing of baby seals!” So, no need to worry about our own practices, which are necessary/part of our culture/produce something delicious, etc. I don’t mean to pick out the EU in particular there, but this sort of action seems pretty common among humans.
*I take it that seals are killed, but it seems that “baby” ones of the sort pictured here are not killed, or at least not in any cases that would be stopped by the EU law. As far as I can tell the EU law applies to seals of whatever age.


Sebastian 07.20.09 at 11:17 pm

“…Internet gambling access to the US (where based outside the US)? Could have fairly wide ranging consequences.”

Didn’t the US already lose this case?


Henry 07.20.09 at 11:39 pm

As best I understand it, the cubs are protected until they are 12 days old – after that, they are “fair game”:


lemuel pitkin 07.21.09 at 12:29 am


So what are some examples of social reforms or regulations that did *not* begin with a limited set of particularly egregious or politically feasible cases?


Walt 07.21.09 at 12:37 am

The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act.


lemuel pitkin 07.21.09 at 12:45 am

Walt, I assume you’re being sarcastic. But obviously there was a long rolling repeal of the Glass-Steagall before then. It’s really the opposite of the sort of immaculate regulation that Matt, King Rat, etc. are looking for.

In general, I’m always a little puzzled by the idea that it’s somehow illegitimate for a political movement to present its goals in the most favorable light, to meet people where they are rather than demanding everything at once, or to take advantage of the self-interest of elected officials.


Matt 07.21.09 at 1:31 am

Lemuel- I’m not sure how you think you know my considered position on this- I’ve just been reporting what the law is and what I think the likely outcomes are. My response to you was just that would-be changes that only require other people to change while having no real impact on the one demanding the change ought to be looked at a bit skeptically. As often as not they are a way to allow the side demanding that others change to feel like they’ve done good without changing their own behavior at all. That’s just an observation about human nature (do you deny it? It seems pretty common to me), not a statement about the merits of the claims at all.


Scott Martens 07.21.09 at 2:18 pm

Adult seals are large, fat, obnoxious, violent and not even remotely telegenic. They are also very tasty when raw, sliced thin like carpaccio and dipped in soy sauce. So… maybe I’m not very sympathetic to the anti-sealing movement. I suppose being Canadian and having spent some childhood in Nunavut might have some influence on that. Go figure.

But as a club to beat the WTO to death with, it does seem like pretty small potatoes. I’m not even sure it’s going to make any meaningful difference to the ruling Conservatives in Canada. I mean, if they rule *for* the EU the actual impact on the Canadian seal trade is fairly small. Norway is the major external consumer of Canadian seals anyway – primarily for processing and then re-export to Russia and Asia – and it is unaffected.

Besides, the US has banned all marine mammal products for years. I should think whatever excuse the US gets away with would be a viable defense for Brussels.

And if the WTO rules against the EU, does anyone really think you can build a successful anti-WTO movement on top of *baby seals*?!? Look at the lack of success of the anti-EU movement in the UK – the EU is widely unpopular in Britain and the things the EU regulates are far, far closer to home for the public than seal products and they *still* can’t score any meaningful influence on policy.

Trade liberalization may be set back by the global crisis. But *this* is barely a bullet point in an election manifesto, and an ineffective one at that since all parties in Canada support the seal hunt, and no parties in the EU oppose the ban.


mpowell 07.21.09 at 3:21 pm

23: What I meant was that cruel treatment towards animals is so common in all the industrialized countries of the world that if the WTO agreement allowed it as an exeption for an import ban the agreement would have no teeth at all. A vast number of products could be banned using that reason as a pretext for exactly the sort of protection the WTO is there to prevent. I’m not arguing that it is silly to simultaneously advocate free trade and concern for animal cruelty, but in the world we live in for the WTO agreements to be meaningful or even fair, they should not allow such an exception.


lemuel pitkin 07.21.09 at 5:33 pm


But this assumes that there is no standard at all for what constitutes an admissible claim of animal cruelty, that if such exceptions are allowed at all they will be allowed completely indiscriminately. I don’t think this is how the world works. Anyway, it is certainly not the lesson of this case — there is a reason why this discussion is happening wrt bludgeoning seals, a practice that appears exceptionally cruel, both because of the animal and the method of killing it.

More likely, allowing exceptions for animal cruelty will strengthen the economic gradient between more and less cruel animal-rearing practices. It will create incentives to specialize in less emotionally appealing animals and to treat them in less obviously inhumane ways. Of course these incentives may not be all that strong, as Scott M. points out in 34, and of course the definition of cruelty that emerges from the political process won’t match up precisely with what you or I might prefer. But they won’t be completely uncorrelated — it will be easier to make the political and legal case for genuinely cruel practices.

I mean, it’s not as tho bans on genetically-modified organisms have opened the floodgate to agricultural protection of all kinds, even though in some abstract, legalistic sense you would be correct to say that all crops have been genetically modified.


Ernst 07.21.09 at 7:08 pm

@Jeff at 3

It wouldn’t surprise me if a majority of the EU parliament (the institution responsible for this ban) would like to ban bull fighting. Almost everybody here shares your views on bull fighting. Unfortunately the Parliament doesn’t have the authority to ban bullfighting as it is an internal matter while they do have the partial power to regulate imports. The council could ban Bullfighting but as Spain has a veto there it’s clear that it’s not going to happen.

And as an aside I believe that if Canada was to increase the tariff on foie gras it would be seen as an extra if unintended benefit and quite popular with the general populace over here. Props to Canada if they take this route.


mijnheer 07.22.09 at 5:21 pm

Most Canadians oppose the commercial seal hunt and think the EU should be allowed to restrict trade in seal products, according to a public-opinion poll conducted by Environics Research, one of Canada’s leading polling firms:
See also:


Randy McDonald 07.23.09 at 5:15 pm

It’s not a coincidence that the people who are being shafted here are either dirt-poor Atlantic Canadians (I, fwiw, am Atlantic Canadian, but I’m not personally affected by the future of the seal hunt) or the Inuit.

As an Atlantic Canadian, I heartily approve of the ban.

The seal cull isn’t necessary to restore the fisheries. For that matter, while blaming foreigners like Europeans for the collapse of the fisheries might make said Atlantic Canadians feel better, it is not the truth. Sadly, it is the greed of Atlantic Canadian fishers–remember the days of a fish plant in every major community back in the 1980s–that is responsible for the disappearance of the cod, and the ecological changes that has made it certain that the cod will not come back. The seals serve as scapegoats for people who have been left behind by the times.

As for the fact that seals are cute, I do not see how that affects things. The first animal-protection legislation was directed towards household pets like dogs and cats, animals which appealed to human on the grounds of–wait for it–their cuteness. Does that fact disqualify them from protection? I wonder.


derrida derider 07.28.09 at 7:41 am

It seems to me two issues are being confused here. One is whether seals should be hunted and their furs sold . I’m firmly of the “yes” persuasion there, considering that the opposition is solely due to the fact that seal cubs happen to have round eyelids. If they had rat-like eyes and fur we’d have heard nothing of them.

The other – the point of the original post – is whether such prejudices, rational or not, should be overriden by WTO regulations. That’s a lot tougher question. If you answer yes then people like the French are gonna find all sorts of ways of introducing unfair and economically very harmful practices aimed at protecting domestic vested interests. But if you don’t then – as the post points out – you may endanger the whole WTO agreements.

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