Brussels (AFP) Oct 28, 2010
A European judge has refused to suspend a ban on the import of seal products in Europe, dealing a blow to Canada's Inuit hunters and fur traders, according to a ruling released on Thursday.
The European Union's decision to ban such imports angered Canada and prompted a legal challenge by Inuit groups from Canada and Greenland.
This new ruling by the European Court of Justice further "disappointed" both Canadian sealers and Ottawa.
Judge Marc Jaeger rejected an argument made by the Inuits that the embargo on seal products would cause severe financial damage and raise the risk of suicide among youths in their communities.
The ban took effect partially on August 20 with a temporary exemption for Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), a native Canadian group, and 15 other plaintiffs who sought a freeze until Europe's top court makes a final ruling.
But Jaeger rejected the request, making it a total ban until the European Court of Justice decides on the legality of the prohibition.
The European ban includes an exemption for seal products derived from hunts traditionally conducted by Inuit and indigenous communities for subsistence.
Despite the exemption, Inuits insist that they are nevertheless affected because it shrinks the market for the product. They also fear that the exemption would not always be respected.
Jaeger was not swayed.
"The plaintiffs presented no concrete indication that would justify their fears in this regard," the judge wrote in his October 25 decision issued in French. His decision can be appealed.
In Brussels, the European Commission said the legislation will now apply "to all, fully and without restriction."
The EU executive said the plaintiffs' case was "misguided and clearly inadmissible."
A lawyer for the plaintiffs, Jan Bouckaert, told AFP he was examining the ruling and had not decided whether to appeal it.
"I can only regret this order," he said. "All I can say is that the battle continues."
Canada is pursuing the issue through the World Trade Organization and "we hope to get resolution through that medium... because we feel that the European Union is in violation of international trade laws," Canadian Fisheries Minister Gail Shea told reporters.
The second round of WTO negotiations are expected to start in November.
"I'd like to express my disappointment with the ruling of the European Court of Justice," Shea added.
The European Parliament endorsed the ban last year after public outcry over Canada's annual commercial seal hunt, which animal rights activists denounce as cruel.
"We are pleased that the court has made the right decision and lifted the suspension," said Lesley O'Donnell, EU director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
"This ban is about the right of Europeans to say 'No' to products that stem from cruel and unnecessary hunts," O'Donnell said in an interview.
Native groups, hunters and fur companies from Canada, Greenland and Norway are among 16 plaintiffs contesting the European regulation, saying it is unfair and discriminatory.
Norway has also asked for consultations at the World Trade Organisation in an effort to resolve the dispute.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has described the ban as "completely unfair" and "flagrant discrimination" against Canadian sealers who have been following established rules of animal husbandry.
ITK president Mary Simon has called the ban "illegal and immoral" and urged European lawmakers to withdraw it.
Canada's 6,000 sealers make 10 million Canadian dollars from the hunt, with a quarter of it from exports to Europe, according to the Canadian government.
Some 5.6 million Greenland seals were in Canadian waters in 2009 compared to two million in the early 1970s.
Fur Institute of Canada sealing network coordinator David Barry said Thursday: "The ban itself is discriminatory and unjust, and it does absolute nothing to address the issues of marine conservation or animal welfare."
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