Issue Guide: Trade Embargoes, Seals, and More
by Jaime Berkheimer, Stacey Cargile, Gabriel Richards, Erika Palsson, and Inbal Shem-Tov  
Students in H90 "The Science of Biodiversity and Conservation"
 Campuswide Honors ProgramUniversity of California, Irvine
Instructor: Dr. Peter J. Bryant (pjbryant@uci.edu),  Interdisciplinary Minor in Global Sustainability


A trade embargo is a law or policy a state initiates which prohibits or otherwise restricts the importation/exportation of goods. Trade embargoes are typically motivated by political, economic, moral, or environmental reasons, and used as a form of protest against another country's practices. We are primarily concerned here with the controversies surrounding trade embargoes the United States has issued on certain products exported by other countries, but see in this issue broader implications concerning free trade and its effects on the sovereignty of a nation.

The United States has a number of trade embargoes on products produced by other countries but we will focus specifically on the issues surrounding the US embargo on the importation of seal products from Norway. The United States' Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits the importation of harp-seal (and all marine mammal) products. The United States' position is primarily founded upon worries concerning inhumane killing methods and environmental conservation issues.

Seal hunting and the selling of various seal products is a multi-million dollar industry in Norway. Norway's complaint is that the United States' Marine Mammal Protection Act is in conflict with rules and guidelines set down by the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and that therefore the embargo should be lifted and trade allowed. The purpose of the WTO and GATT is to facilitate free trade between member nations but they have no executive power, they simply pass resolutions "suggesting" that countries do what they say. The WTO and GATT both ruled that the United States' trade embargo on harp-seal furs violates terms agreed to by nations belonging to WTO and GATT and called for the lifting of the embargo.


Norway's Position (supported by WTO and GATT)

Although Norway agrees that embargoes should be established prohibiting the trade of endangered species, they are quick to point out that the harp-seal is not an endangered species. In fact the population is booming and is giving serious competition to the local fisheries. Norwegians argue that since the species in question is not endangered, the United States' must object to the trade of harp seal products on moral grounds. They argue further that if the United States is prohibiting the importation of seal products because of their moral preference, then they are effectively forcing their moral priorities upon Norway and this is unacceptable. One may not see how the decision not to purchase a certain product from another country constitutes the imposing of moral priorities, but in light of the United States' unique power and role in the world's economy, such actions do effectively force compliance. The Norwegians also state, formally, that the seal industry is highly regulated and humane. Seal hunters must undergo training and marksmanship classes and inspectors are stationed on every hunting vessel. So ultimately, they argue that the United States' moral objections are unfounded.

In light of this reasoning the WTO and GATT ruled that the United States was in violation of the rules and guidelines governing these two respective organizations to which the United States is a party.


The Case for the U.S.

The United States' decision to enact the Marine Mammal Protection Act is rooted in environmentalist, animal rights activist, and conservationist ideology. The United States, in order to protect marine mammals from extinction and inhumane treatment adopted this act which among other things prohibits harp seal trade with Norway. Pictures, video, and other documentation is available illustrating the inhumane treatment accorded hunted seals. They are allegedly not killed quickly and often skinned while still alive. Odd F. Lindberg, a Royal Norwegian Sealing Inspector, testifies that the seals suffer greatly and that the hunting is cruel. on vessels that he inspected, regulations were routinely being violated, and hunting statistics were altered to hide the truth. So, apparently the seal hunt is inhumane and Americans do have a foundation for their moral objection to the harvesting of harp seals.

The GATT does contain exceptions to its free trade policy which state that embargoes could be put into place in order to uphold public morals. Such a clause might justify American refusal to lift the trade embargo on harp seals.


Concluding Remarks

Despite the clause in the GATT which allows for a nation to uphold their public morals by issuing trade embargoes, GATT and the WTO still found the United States in violation of the rules and guideline governing the two trade organizations and called for the United States to lift the embargo. Many questions now arise. What of the American moral priority to save the harp seal from inhumane treatment? Are Americans just supposed to forget it and assimilate the callousness of the Norwegians? What of the sovereignty of the United States? Should a nation have ultimate control over what comes into and goes out of its borders? What right does a foreign country have to tell another country what they must allow to be imported? Is the loss of a nation's sovereignty a necessary result of international free trade? What are the environmental consequences of opening the world to free trade? If a country is not allowed to prohibit the products which enter it, by what other means can a country protest the exploitation of a natural resource?

People to Write to With Your Opinion

Charlene Barshefsky
United States Trade Representative
600 17th Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20508

California Senator Feinstein

California Senator Boxer

California 47th District Representative Chris Cox

To protest cruel treatment of seals click here.

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