On 1 January 2010 the World Trade Organization (WTO) will celebrate its 15th birthday. Shortly before the anniversary the 7th Session of the WTO Ministerial Conference will take place for the second time in Geneva, Switzerland, from 30 November to 2 December 2009. Although Article IV: 1 of the Marrakesh Agreement Establishing the WTO stipulates that there shall be "a Ministerial Conference composed of representatives of all the Members, which shall meet at least once every two years……." it has been almost four years since the last conference in Hong Kong in 2005. Trade ministers will be discussing the general theme “The WTO, the Multilateral Trading System and the Current Global Economic Environment”. Unlike the six previous Ministerial conferences the Geneva Ministerial is not intended to be a negotiating session, but will be devoted to good governance and a review of the functioning of the WTO. The ongoing Doha Development Agenda negotiations are being dealt with seperately. The WTO is still awaiting successful conclusion on these negotiations.
On the subject of dispute settlement the WTO has more reason to celebrate. With an average of 27 disputes per year the WTO Dispute Settlement Body (DSB) received its 400th trade dispute on 2 November 2009. Canada requested consultations with the European Communities over the importation and marketing of seal products (European Communities — Measures Prohibiting the Importation and Marketing of Seal Products (DS400)), a few days later followed by a similar request by Norway (DS401)).
Both cases concern the recently introduced Regulation (EC) No. 1007/2009 of the European Parliament and the Council on Trade in Seal Products which prohibits the marketing of products derived from seals on the EU market.
After many years of campaigning by European citizens the new legislation addresses EU citizens' concerns with regard to the cruel hunting methods of seals. Seals are hunted mainly for their skin, fat, and meat, but there is a rising market for omega-3 capsules containing seal oil. The methods used to kill seals and their effectiveness vary considerably. These include shooting seals with bullets, clubbing, and catching them in traps and nets. Seal products include fur used in clothing and oil used in vitamin supplements. Canada, Greenland and Namibia account for around 60 percent of the 900,000 seals killed each year. The remaining 40 percent are killed in Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Britain and the United States.
The Regulation applies to seal products produced in the EU and imported products. It does not apply to transit through the EU. The marketing prohibition enters into force nine months after the entry into force of the regulation. During this nine month period the Commission will adopt and implement legislation necessary for the limited exemptions which are foreseen to respect the fundamental economic and social interests of Inuit and other indigenous communities, and the need to conduct hunting for the purpose of sustainable management of marine resources on a non-profit basis and for non-commercial reasons.
Judging by the statement of the European Commission’s spokesperson for Trade, Lutz Guellner, that the Commission would vigorously defend its position on this issue, the case will probably go all the way. According to Guellner the claim that the EU is not respecting its WTO obligations was unfounded. The measures adopted were not protectionist nor discriminatory and respond to concerns about the killing of seals and their commercialization which are widely held in the EU.