Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Signed, sealed and delivered in the EU?

Before I start, I ask for your forgiveness for my ignorance.

My ignorance of certain things that, really, require too much of my time and commitment to deepen my knowledge of the topic.

The topic, specifically, is about free trade, the WTO, the G8, and other acronyms related to control of trade between countries.

The issue? Canada’s rather hostile response to the European Union’s ban on seal products, which was just passed this morning (Tuesday, May 5, 2009).

This is a perplexing issue. As a Canadian, and a coastal Canadian who can appreciate the dependency of a society on fishing and hunting for livelihood, I understand the frustrations of seal hunters in Newfoundland who need to put food on their families’ tables night after night by bringing in seal pelts from blood-soaked ice floes off the eastern coast.

Newfoundland already has a somewhat fragile economy, dependent on fishing, tourism – and yes, seal hunting – and the rest of us are rather high and mighty if we wag our fingers at them for their seal hunting practices.

I also understand the shock and horror of hippies, animal lovers and humanitarians (or animalitarians, perhaps?) everywhere. The seal hunt, as we’ve seen on TV and in numerous pictures, is a gross display of barbarism. To the best of us, it represents the worst of us as humans, and represents the cruelty we inflict on innocent animal species – in this case, something as furry and as cute as a seal. No one likes to see a beady-eyed seal’s skull get smashed in, even if seals naturally make good steaks for the various aqua-carnivores who populate the oceans.

OK, I run off topic a little bit here. Let’s return to what happened Tuesday morning: The European Parliament voted on an EU ban on seal products – which would effectively kill the primary market for Canada’s seal hunt. In response, Canada’s Conservative government has expressed “deep disappointment” and plans to make a complaint to the World Trade Organization should the ban pass.

“If the EU imposes a trade ban on seal products it must contain an exemption for any country, like Canada, that has strict guidelines in place for humane and sustainable sealing practices,” said the Honourable Stockwell Day, Minister of International Trade and Minister for the Asia-Pacific Gateway.

Now, this is what sticks in my craw:

First, we see that one group of countries has decided – within its own rights – that they don’t want to see a certain product on its soil due to ethical reasons. That’s fine. And in response, the country affected by this wants to challenge that ban. Fine, too.

But how is it that the WTO has the power to decide whether or not the ban is within law? That’s one thing that bothers me. The WTO actually has the power to penalize the EU for acting on its own belief structure. Are we saying, effectively, that the 200-plus countries of this world cannot legitimately decide what they want to do on their own turf?

But on the other side of things, are we also saying, effectively, that a country very directly affected by another country’s decision has no right to challenge that decision via a world trade body?

OK, the seal hunt, to me, is a no brainer. It’s a disgusting, inhumane system of animal harvesting which needs to be improved in one way or another. If seals must be killed, surely, there is a better way to go about it than reducing their brains to hamburger with “traditional” Inuit clubs. But back to my question – who decides this? Is it Canada’s government via invoking new laws? Is it Canada’s people via pressuring the government? Is it the EU, again via new laws such as the one passed this morning? Is it the EU’s people, via their choice on whether or not to buy seal products?

So many questions come to mind when it comes to the WTO’s place in our new global economy. The purpose of the WTO, simply put, is to act as an international body to govern international trade between countries. I can’t go much deeper than that, so pardon me for my ignorance.

However, I see a glorious opportunity in the seal hunt and the subsequent EU ban on seal products. It’s an opportunity to explore just how we must deal with each other as countries and as people, and where we must draw the line when it comes to imposing our ethical beliefs on another country via trade laws.

They say ignorance is bliss. But while I have been ignorant of how international trade laws operate, I have hardly been blissful about the seal hunt aspect of international trade. The whole thing, in short, disturbs me.

It bothers me because I find it very hard to conceive of a world in which we can all agree on everything. One thing we did agree on was to have an international trade body – the WTO. But now, that body has served as a platform for international trade disputes.

And we’re seeing a new one surfacing. Canada’s Conservative government isn’t the kind to back down. And the EU isn’t one to back down easily either. It’ll be mighty interesting.

It also serves as a huge opportunity for us to explore where the new lines need to be drawn. Geographic lines between countries were drawn ages ago – but trade lines are still very unclear, even now.

So, be sure to keep an eye on what happens between the EU and Canada. I know I will use this as an opportunity to be less ignorant of how it all works.

And, I hope, you will too.


Anonymous said...

It all brings to mind what has happened with the sovereignty of the countries? Plus, it is seal fur we're talking about, it's not a subsistence item, and don't tell me one could make oil, pills, bags, and steaks with the rest of the seal.
People who depend on this trade (in NF) should start thinking about upgrading their skills and diversifying the economy, the same goes for the automobile industry (developing new technology to not be so dependent on oil). The will has dried...

Anonymous said...

It's a boat load of good questions you raise which lead to deeper issues like:

"what is a nation state anymore?"
"can the nation state enforce law without an international governing body? (Think global communication, the internet and companies with no 'national' tie for taxation purposes)"
"Should ethical capitalism be directed by an international body?" "Should hypocrisy be investigated when making a ruling? (Think of Spain in the EU and bullfighting)"?
"Should we not be voting in regards to international ruling organizations as we do with nation states?"

Personally I think the EU has more important things to think about within it;s own borders, however, I also believe they have the right to reject products on ethical grounds... like Ivory! Heck I think Canada makes Ivory, Alligator pelts and other species products illegal for ethical reasoning... so why can't others? Lets not be turning into a nation of whiners.... especially about a topic that most would agree is in defence of something rather unethical.

On the other hand I think the Conservative government in Canada is really 'out there'. I feel they are leading our nation in a direction towards greater Americanization at a time when American is questioning the very nature of themselves and coming up with hard questions. This absolutely reeks of a Bush-lite reaction... i.e we will fight this because... er cause it goes against us! You just can't do that you see, we're Canadians! When did Canadians get so self-righteous?

I think there is an argument for preserving aspects of the native culture... I have a great deal of respect for traditional hunters who use cunning to stand by a seals breathing hole for 8 hours without twitching just to catch a single seal... or natives standing in a moving river to catch salmon with hand made tools... but walking along the ice and clubbing unprotected animals... well... I don't know about you, but it's not really a skill is it? I mean the San people of Namibia are amazing in the way they can track animals for days and eventually wear them out through sheer exhaustion... but do they go and walk up to the Seals at Cape Cross and club them... no they don't.

I guess the one thing I can say for Europe is at least that are standing by a principal and not taking a stand due to a monetary concern,,, er which is what we're doing... when asked why you take a certain point of view I think I would rather have ethics on my side than economics.

Devon Perry

auday said...

The industrial, first world are like big animals in the forest, they didnt like the fact that smaller animals are protecting themselves by some local protection systems (protectionism).
So the big animals enforced a ban on those animals protection system and globalised a new system/no-system called "Free Trade" to bring the forest to the chaos it used to be so that they could hunt and eat freely.
But then the big animals found that they still need some rules to control how the big animals would share the forest together and avoid falling victims to the forest law they enforced themselves, so they decided to create a new organization called WTO that sets the new standards of the forest within the umbrella of "free trade". And animals lived happily ever after, ...hmmm, not really :)

Adelle Rundquist said...

I have a few comments about this topic. Firstly, I think that all nations of the world have some skeletons in their closet. The previous mention of Spain and the Bullfight is case in point. But, I find that the typical finger pointing of wrongs doesn't do much by way of invoking good, open and honest dialogue. It is imperative that solutions be sought...this is an important "industry" to the economy of eastern Canada and ought not to be taken lightly. Just as the Bullfight could be equally as important to the economy of Spain. As inhumane as both of these practices appear to be they have been around for centuries. I am confident that in time, as passions against these practices become more common place, they will disappear. It is a matter of time passing and practices fading.

What appears to be surfacing is the desire to have an international body that will have the teeth to govern/monitor ethical practices of nations. Which will likely never happen. This brings me to my second point, one that I have struggled with for years, is that no matter how intertwined economic systems become between nations, it cannot be escaped that nations will do as nations will do. Just as people will do as people will do. It is difficult to inflict your will onto other person. Just as it is difficult to inflict the will of one nation onto another. There are fine lines that are so very interesting and are worthy of thoughtful reflection.

Is it right for one body to inflict/force its will on another? Even if it is for their proverbial good? Even our recent history has proven this to be problematic.

If it were possible to have an effective international body to govern the actions of nations...what is the scope of it's jurisdiction? So many kettles of worms...