Inuit leaders were fuming on May 22 as the World Trade Organization (WTO) upheld the European Union’s ban on seal products, saying the move was an imposition of European values on a traditional indigenous sustenance practice.
“I am morally outraged at the self-righteousness and sanctimoniousness of the EU’s claim to protect the morals of its citizens,” said Terry Audla, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), in a statement from the national Inuit organization. “Inuit live according to the principles of fairness and compassion, and we seek nothing more than to feed our families and make an honest living in the modern economy. It is morally reprehensible for anyone to impede those goals—which are the basic rights of any citizen of the world.”
Although the ban exempts Inuit who are subsistence harvesting, ITK said that even the exemption misses the point. The measure not only “was not designed by or in negotiation with Inuit,” but it also contains a loophole that allows Greenland Inuit products into the EU but excludes those of Inuit living in Canada, ITK said.
Both Canada and Norway had challenged the ban, which the EU originally handed down in 2010, on imports and sales of seal fur, meat and related products. Canada appealed the ban last year, and on Thursday May 22 the WTO ruled in favor of the EU and continued its support for the Inuit after the ruling.
On the one hand, three Canadian ministry officials said in a joint statement, the WTO has acknowledged that the ban “treats Canadian seal products unfairly.” On the other hand, the ban itself “was a political decision that has no basis in fact or science,” said Minister of International Trade Ed Fast, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Gail Shea and Minister of the Environment Leona Aglukkaq—herself an Inuit, as well as being minister of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency and Minister for the Arctic Council.
“For more than three years, our government has fought against the European Union’s unfair ban on seal products by elevating it to a World Trade Organization dispute resolution panel,” the three said. “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.”
While pleased that the WTO appeal confirmed the “arbitrary” nature of the ban, the Canadian officials expressed concern with “the practical impact of the decision on the Atlantic and northern seal harvests.” ITK pointed out that the seal species in question are abundant and not endangered, and that the hunt is sustainable in the regions the animals are harvested in.
Images of seals being clubbed to death have circulated widely, giving the tradition a bad name internationally. Earlier this year comedian Ellen DeGeneres inflamed sentiments when funds raised by a selfie photo at the Oscars sent about $1.5 million to the Humane Society, which strongly opposes the seal hunt. ITK and other groups responded by taking “Sealfies,” photos of themselves with seal products, and posting them on the Internet.
Indeed, the EU ban was found to be “necessary to protect public morals,” the WTO stated.
This is “an argument that Inuit find abhorrent,” ITK said. “The EU doesn’t deny that the ban is discriminatory, but argues that the discrimination is justified.”