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The WTO Says Animal Welfare Is a “Globally Recognized Issue.” How Does That Change International Protection for Animals?

June 29, 2021

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Katie Sykes blogs on the threats that face animals in our globalized world.

In recent years animal welfare and animal rights have started to be taken more seriously in international legal scholarship. There is a nascent Global Animal Law movement that works to promote international legal protection for animals – meaning protection of individual animals as intrinsically valuable and significant beings, not just conserving aggregate populations of animals as valuable resources for human use. 

In a globalized world, the threats that face animals often have an international dimension. To name just a few examples, think of the 14,000 sheep that drowned in 2019 when a cargo ship en route to Saudi Arabia capsized in the Black Sea; the live animals on long international voyages that were caught in the delays when the Suez Canal was blocked by the grounded cargo ship Ever Given; the challenges of protecting species that migrate across international boundaries; and the effects of climate change and global environmental degradation on animal habitats and survival.

Global Animal Law scholars argue that we need an international law of animal protection to respond effectively to challenges like these, because uncoordinated domestic laws leave too many gaps.  And, on a more philosophical level, they (or, rather, we, since I include myself in this group) believe that a just international legal order must grapple with the ethical dimension of humanity’s relationship with nonhuman animals.

But attention to these issues in positive international law is still disappointingly sparse.  For years there have been discussions of an multilateral treaty on animal welfare, but the treaty does not exist.  A UN Declaration of Animal Welfare was drafted more than a decade ago, but it has lost momentum.  The jurisprudence of international courts and tribunals is almost completely silent on animal welfare and the moral significance of individual animals.

There is one notable exception: the EC—Seal Products case at the World Trade Organization.  This case started when the EU banned sales and imports of all seal products, citing the concerns of the European public about cruelty in the seal hunt.  Sealing nations Canada and Norway challenged the EU ban as an illegal restriction on international trade.  A WTO panel ruled on the case in 2013.  Here’s the rare exception to the general invisibility of animal welfare at international tribunals: the WTO panel stated that animal welfare is “a globally recognized issue” and “an ethical responsibility for human beings in general.” 

The panel’s decision was appealed to the WTO Appellate Body, which changed some aspects of the panel’s reasoning but came to a similar conclusion overall – and did not overturn or disavow the panel’s statements about the global significance of animal welfare.  Both the panel and the Appellate Body confirmed that concerns about animal welfare can be a legitimate reason to restrict trade under the “public morals” safe harbour in WTO law.  The ban survived (with some modifications), many other countries adopted similar bans on seal products, and commercial seal hunting has declined significantly.

This positive contribution to the development of global animal law from the WTO would have been pretty unexpected a decade or two ago.  In the 1990s and 2000s, many animal advocates saw the international trade regime as one of the greatest threats to progress on animal protection.  At the Seattle protests against the WTO in 1999, some of the demonstrators dressed up as turtles – a reference to their fear that the WTO would gut US trade restrictions on imported shrimp caught without equipment that protects endangered sea turtles from being caught in shrimp nets and drowned.  Governments dragged their heels on animal protection legislation that would affect trade, such as banning imports of cosmetic products tested on animals, invoking their worries about potential litigation at the WTO.

After EC-Seal Products, it is clear that WTO members can act to protect animals, not just for conservation purposes but also based on animal welfare concerns, without violating trade rules.  And the case is also important for the panel’s express recognition of the importance of animal welfare as a global concern and a responsibility of humanity.

It is not clear, however, how much difference this development has made or will make in practical terms to the global plight of animals.  Animal welfare protection is weak all over the world.  Even in the jurisdictions with the (relatively) strongest animal welfare laws, millions of animals endure almost unimaginable suffering, and the protections that do exist tend to be poorly enforced.  The WTO will not change this.  WTO law (as we know after EC—Seal Products) doesn’t have to prevent governments from legislating to protect animals – but it certainly doesn’t require it.  The WTO is not an animal welfare agency.  Its purpose is to facilitate global trade. Global trade in animals and animal products is steadily growing, and that means more animal suffering. 

Even the confirmation that WTO rules need not be an impediment to stronger animal protection laws may not change very much on the ground.  Governments don’t seem to have much trouble finding other reasons not to act to protect animal welfare, especially when there are competing business or other human interests.  On the other hand, there are some signs that governments may be willing to go further on some animal protection policies now that they no longer face the same uncertainties about running into WTO problems.  For example, Canada recently enacted a ban on the import and export of shark fins – the first G20 country to do so.

It’s possible that more evolution towards international agreement and collaboration on protecting animals could come from international trade law – but trade law outside the WTO itself. There is a huge number of non-WTO trade agreements, from bilateral deals between two trading partners to vast trading blocs that cover multiple countries and large portions of the global market, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (now the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership or CPTPP).  An important feature of these more modern trade agreements is the inclusion of positivecommitments on non-trade matters (such as labour rights and environmental protections) that are connected to membership in the trading relationship.  In other words – if you want to be part of this trade deal, you also have to promise to live up to these standards on labour, the environment, etc. 

That “etc.” could include animal welfare.  In fact, in some bilateral agreements between the EU and other trade partners (including Chile, South Korea and Mexico), it already does.  Those deals have fairly weak language about developing mutually agreed standards on animal welfare and having consultations on animal welfare concerns, limited to matters that have to do with trade covered by the agreement.  All the same, these are international treaties that do expressly deal with animal welfare.  Scholars and activists have been advocating for an animal welfare treaty for all these years, and in a limited and nascent form such treaties do already exist.

The bigger multi-party trade agreements do not address animal welfare.  They do, however, routinely include entire chapters on environmental commitments, which includes the protection of animals to some extent.  An especially interesting feature of these provisions is that they create mechanisms for public participation.  In practical terms, this means that NGOs and even private citizens can request information and make submissions if their own governments are failing to live up to the environmental commitments under the treaty.

These mechanisms can be used to help protect animals.  In fact, they have been. Public participation provisions under a regional trade agreement called CAFTA-DR were used by Humane Society International and the Humane Society of the US in 2007 to address illegal killing of endangered sea turtles in the Dominican Republic, a party to the trade deal. Trade-related provisions like these could potentially become a starting point for generating collaborative international approaches to protecting animals, based on shared values and linked to enforceable obligations. In fact, it’s not far-fetched to imagine a multilateral treaty on animal welfare actually appearing in positive international law someday, in the form of a chapter appended to an international trade agreement.  International trade law may seem like an unlikely incubator of global animal law.  But perhaps this will indeed be where international animal welfare law starts to get a foothold in positive law and real-world action.


Animal Welfare and International Trade Law by Katie Sykes, Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, Thompson Rivers University, Canada is out now.

Read chapter 1 free on Elgaronline

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Law, Governance and Planetary Boundaries

June 17, 2021

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By Professors Duncan French and Louis J. Kotzé

The world is facing an ecological crisis; a human-made ecological crisis. President Biden has indicated that we have the 2020s to try to ameliorate the worst excesses of climate change; that ‘[s]cientists tell us that this is the decisive decade – this is the decade we must make decisions that will avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis’ (Presidential speech, 22 April 2021). Climate change is a critical part of the ecological crisis, and while it may be the most important concern, but it is certainly not the only issue we are confronting. As Sir David Attenborough and Professor Johan Rockström show in the recently released Netflix film, “Breaking Boundaries: The Science of Our Planet”, we face a plethora of challenges, amongst them the collapse of the Earth’s biodiversity. As custodians, humanity has failed to care for the Earth, and we are now counting the cost and at an alarming and accelerated rate. Is it too late to stop ecological destruction? The signs are certainly not good … but there is still some hope!

One of the most potent tools developed in the past few years to measure our fate, as well as what progress towards better global environmental protection would look like, is the planetary boundaries framework. Developed by the Stockholm Resilience Institute in 2009 under the leadership of Prof. Johan Rockström, this framework identifies 9 global boundaries – amongst them climate change, biodiversity, ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion, and land-use change – which individually and cumulatively delimit a safe operating space for humanity to continue to exist on Earth, but only so long as we stay within the boundaries. Once we cross these boundaries- and the evidence suggests we have in relation to biodiversity and biogeochemical flows (phosphorus and nitrogen pollution), the impact of humanity takes on a new level of risk previously unknown. Of course, as with all risk, the exact effect is difficult to predict accurately in advance, but the weight of evidence is such that we know that it will impact us in increasingly deleterious and potentially exponential ways. Climate change, as a singular boundary, is a particularly significant risk as its impact is likely to act as an aggravating multiplier of all other ecological risks that we face.

In our recently released collection, the Research Handbook on Law, Governance and Planetary Boundaries, an eminent group of legal scholars look at the legal implications of the planetary boundaries approach, and asks what can law do to support humanity to stay within the safe operating spaces identified by the boundaries. Of course, we have had 50 years of international environmental law, and with some success; but on the whole the state of the planet has only worsened over the time. Moreover, whilst environmental law has sought to engage with scientific evidence, it has often done so through a filter of politics and economic compromises, as well as North-South diplomacy, that lessens the ecological efficacy of the rules being adopted. Implementation and governance are similarly challenged by the tension between scientific necessity, political will and economic benefits.

The planetary boundaries approach – not perfect either in its design or elaboration – nevertheless challenges lawyers, policy-makers and civil society to look again at the global purposes underpinning multilateral environmental agreements, other environmental rules and the institutions that have been set up to facilitate global environmental governance. The planetary boundary framework offers an opportunity to ask not only whether these go far enough to address the deepening ecological crisis, but also whether actually we have the appropriate rules for the challenges we face? Some of the planetary boundaries remain noticeably weak in terms of legal coverage (mention has already been made of biogeochemical flows), whereas other challenges remain dogged by continued assertions of territorial sovereignty (eg. deforestation and land-use change), or lack of prioritisation, and even insufficient understanding (chemical pollution and the regulation of novel entities).

Though it is an obvious truism that only the right politics will generate the right law, and at present we don’t see enough of the former to have hope that we will see more of the latter, there is nonetheless much we can do within the current paradigm. These include full and effective support of and participation in those treaties that we do have; regular and effective monitoring, reporting and verification of State compliance; sufficient funding and technical assistance to the global South to ensure meaningful global engagement; and improving how our scientific knowledge feeds into the legal and policy sphere (and with much less filtering by divisional politics and economic wrangling).

But will all this, and other improvements within the current paradigm, be enough? The concern must be that we have left it too late, and that the planet is now faced with a future that no previous generation in the planet’s history has had to face before. Ever since the Industrial Revolution went hand-in-hand with the Enlightenment, we have believed ourselves masters of our own destiny. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown how easily we can be thrown off course from our perceived inalienable rise in our own self-improvement from one generation to the next. Of course, that is a myth perpetuated largely in the North at the expense, and as a result, of exploitation of the South. What nature is telling us is that very soon, the entire planet will look very different from that experienced even fifty years ago, with nature as our unempathetic master. Law, as a human tool, needs to lift the heavy burden, before what we think we know about the world is itself historical.


The Research Handbook on Law, Governance and Planetary Boundaries, edited by Duncan French, Pro Vice Chancellor of the College of Social Science and Professor of International Law, University of Lincoln, UK and Louis J. Kotzé, Research Professor, North-West University, South Africa and Senior Professorial Fellow in Earth System Law, University of Lincoln, UK is out now.

Read chapter one free on Elgaronline.

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The Bleak Silence that Greeted Warning that we have 12 Years to Save the Planet

October 25, 2018

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Geoffrey Jones explores the world’s reaction to the news that we have 12 years to reverse climate change and places it in wider historical context. […]

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The Sustainable Development Goals: the UN’s most important project yet?

June 19, 2018

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Globe On Moss In Forest - Environment Concept

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The spell of the Arctic: The European Union and its Northern Neighbourhood

January 10, 2018

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Snowy landscape, ice, wind and blizzard

Andreas Raspotnik explores the future of the European Union’s Arctic policy.

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