Activism  > The World Trade Organization:


Have We Traded Away Our Right to Protect Animals?
- HSUS (The Humane Society of the United States) - (source:
Activists Geared Up For World Trade Meeting in Seattle


Last year after Thanksgiving, some 5,000 delegates from 134 countries gathered in Seattle to convene a meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO). That meeting would have profound implications for food safety and environmental laws in the US, and the future of genetically engineered foods worldwide.


The WTO was set up in 1995 at the formal end of the Uruguay round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). It is now the most powerful trade body in the world, providing legally binding rules for international commerce and trade policy. The WTO also settles trade disputes in closed panels, with members of the press, general public and citizen groups prohibited from observing, much less participating.


The WTO trade dispute panel has consistently ruled against strong health and environmental laws. For example, it recently ruled against the European Union, which has banned the import of US hormone-treated beef because of health concerns. The WTO's power has also pressured the US to water down dolphin protections and clean air regulations; Guatemala to weaken its implementation of the UNICEF baby formula marketing code that protects babies from disease caused when mothers mix infant formula with contaminated water; and South Korea to lower food safety standards on produce inspection and the shelf life of meat.


US Department of Agriculture and US Trade Representatives have repeatedly told the media that they hope to use the WTO to force open European markets to accept US grown genetically engineered crops. The European Union has placed a moratorium on approving new genetically engineered crops, and the EU, Australia and Japan have developed or are in the process of developing labeling laws.


Therefore, the Seattle meeting was protested hugely by some 300 organizations. The diverse group of environmental, labor and consumer organizations were calling for a reduction in the WTO's powers and wanted to ensure that countries retain the ability to enact and maintain their own public health and safety laws. However unfortunately, poor handling by police and the reactions by the protesters got out of the control. The result was a big chaos, for the whole world to witness.


Activists have passed some impressive animal protection laws in the last two decades. The United States banned dolphin-deadly tuna and enacted sea turtle protection laws. The United Nations set a global moratorium on high-seas driftnet fishing, and the United States followed up with the High Seas Driftnet Fisheries Enforcement Act. Meanwhile, the European Union (EU) banned the use of the steel-jaw leghold trap and the testing of cosmetics on animals where alternatives are available. Too bad none of these laws could withstand the World Trade Organization (WTO).


In the WTO, a group of nations made a deal: they will obey WTO laws in exchange for trade without barriers. In the world of the WTO, free trade is king.


The WTO may have been great for free trade, but as far as animals are concerned, the WTO is the single most destructive international organization ever formed. WTO rulings can reach any animal, anywhere, and at any time. Nothing is sacred in the eyes of the WTO, so regulations on handling, slaughtering, and care of animals as well as those governing trapping, pollution, and habitat destruction are all fair game. And whenever a nation has challenged an animal protection regulation, the WTO has ruled that regulation to be an illegal trade barrier. The nation that has enacted the offending rules must either change its law or pay a heavy financial penalty. The nation usually prefers to change the law.


The U.S. dolphin protection legislation is a typical example of what happens when an animal protection law runs up against the WTO: Animal protection advocates, consumer groups, and concerned citizens worked for nearly twenty-five years to pass certain dolphin protection provisions of the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act. These provisions were a way for the American people to stop the tuna industry's slaughter of millions of dolphins. The impetus behind this law clearly was animal protection rather than the erection of trade barriers. Tuna fishing fleets, primarily those from Mexico, that didn't use dolphin-safe fishing methods were unwilling to change the way they fished and resented losing access to the U.S. tuna market. The WTO made it easy for them -- traditionally WTO dispute panels interpret an animal protection law as nothing more than an unfair trade barrier. Believing that dolphin-protection provisions couldn't survive a WTO dispute panel, the U.S. government chose to rewrite those provisions so that it could open the U.S. market to dolphin-deadly tuna. The new definition of dolphin-safe now includes chasing, harassing, and injuring dolphins. By rendering dolphin protection basically meaningless, the U.S. government avoided an ugly, unwinnable trade dispute.


In the name of free trade, governments are abandoning protective legislation. Are these governments serving their citizens well? What they are doing is betraying their citizens to keep the faith with the WTO. To mask this betrayal, legislators will alter legislation to make it appear that they are not going against the public will, just rephrasing the regulations a bit or responding to new scientific data that supports a weakening of animal protection -- a weakening that, before the threat of a WTO challenge, was unacceptable to that very same legislative body.


There may be a way out of this pattern of compromise and betrayal. The HSUS has issued recommendations that would make a place for animal protection in the framework of the WTO rules. In the form of Article XX, GATT already provides the groundwork for animal protection. However, Article XX has yet to be an effective means of exempting animal protection laws from the ban on trade barriers. The HSUS is calling for a new WTO rule stating that all animal protection laws are presumed to meet the requirements of Article XX. If adopted, it will mean that animal protection laws would be exempted from the WTO rules, thereby eliminating them as unfair trade barriers.


The HSUS is not opposed to free trade. Where the WTO goes astray is in giving commercial interests the power to change national and international animal protection laws and, in the process, destroy necessary protections for animals and the environment. Where the dispute resolution panels go wrong is in the assumption that it is necessary to destroy animals and the environment in order to have free trade. WTO member nations must let go of their short-sighted obsession with completely unfettered trade if we are ever to have a living, thriving planet in which fair treatment of all creatures still has a place.***********************************