WTO and Sea Turtles Clash Again and Again

Turtles symbolize the over-reaching impact of globalization and the corporate usurpation of "free trade." This, after the Animal Welfare Institute led protestors through the streets of Seattle, Washington and Washington, DC in public demonstration against the damaging application of the World Trade Organization's (WTO's) obscure trade rules on animal welfare, conservation and environmental legislation.

US law requires shrimp trawlers to employ turtle-excluder devices (TEDs), which prevent turtles from drowning in shrimp nets. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) estimates "that TEDs are effective at excluding up to 97% of sea turtles" from shrimp nets.

No shrimp may be imported into America from countries not certified as having sound comparable regulatory policies involving the use of TEDs by shrimp trawlers, unless shrimp harvesting does not involve sea turtles. This TEDs law was challenged by India, Malaysia, Pakistan and Thailand in 1996 as an unfair barrier to free trade.

Article XX of the 1994 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (which established the WTO) allows for ten exceptions to international trade dealings, including measures "relating to the conservation of exhaustible natural resources." However, it must also be determined that such a regulation is not applied arbitrarily or discriminately. The WTO decided that the US sea turtle law was necessary to conserve natural resources, but the implementation of the law was arbitrary and unjustifiably discriminated against the WTO member countries that brought the case.

To comply with this unaccountable international trade body's ruling, the US amended its regulations, easing the requirements for compliance, enhancing due process by communicating directly with nations requesting certification to export shrimp to the US, offering technical assistance to countries requesting it and negotiating multilateral sea turtle conservation agreements. The National Marine Fisheries Service even held training workshops in Pakistan and Australia.

Dissatisfied with America's extensive efforts, Malaysia argued that its "exporters continue to suffer a loss of export opportunities and market share in the United States for wild-harvested shrimp due to the prolonged import prohibition" and appealed to a new WTO Panel. On June 15, 2001, the WTO Dispute Settlement Body upheld America's revised turtle protection measures.

While the US went through various machinations to comply with the original WTO ruling, Malaysia never even attempted to attain certification as a nation that could export shrimp to the US. 

Under the WTO, countries should be treated equally. Malaysia and the recent Dispute Panel itself treat the US decidedly differently. The Panel concludes, for instance, "given its scientific, diplomatic and financial means, it is reasonable to expect rather more than less from the [US] in terms of serious good faith efforts." So as a relatively wealthy nation, the US must meet higher standards in order to apply its own domestic legislation to protect animals-the very type of unequal treatment about which Malaysia complains.

Further, Malaysia defended the rights of "sovereign harvesting nations" by arguing that it was unfair for the US to determine unilaterally what conditions must be met in order to export shrimp to America. But if Malaysia suggests that it loses sovereignty by having to do certain things to gain access to the US market, surely it would agree that the US loses its own sovereignty without the power to set its own import regulations to protect endangered species.

The recent Panel ruling suggests that animals and the environment can be protected under the WTO-the outstanding question is whether we should have to endure five years of legal wrangling and other contortions in order to apply this much needed animal protection. And, of course, Malaysia can appeal once more.


Caption:  Hawksbill sea turtles, like other turtle species (green, loggerhead, flatback, leatherback, olive ridley, and Kemp's ridley) are in danger of extinction. US leadership and international protection are vital to their long-term survival. (Ursula Keuper-Bennett/turtles.org)