EU says ban on seal goods still in place, with exceptions
(BRUSSELS) - A European Union ban on importing seal products took effect as planned Friday but it will not affect hunters and fur traders who have filed a court challenge, the EU Commission said.
The European Union's decision to ban such imports has angered Canada and prompted a legal challenge by Inuit groups from Canada and Greenland.
The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, was caught by surprise on Thursday when an Inuit organisation made public a decision by the European General Court to temporarily freeze the ban.
After commission lawyers scrambled to determine what the court's order meant for the regulation, officials said the ban would not apply to the plaintiffs in the case before the General Court.
"The commission would like to clarify that the trade ban put in place ... still comes into effect today," Maria Kokkonen, a commission spokeswoman, said in a statement.
"However, it will not apply to the applicants in this court case until the General Court has had the opportunity to hear all parties involved," she added.
But an attorney for the groups, Jan Bouckaert, said he did not believe that the freeze was limited to the plaintiffs.
"For us the regulation is suspended," he said.
"The petitioners consider that this regulation seriously harms them and that the damage is difficult to repair," Bouckaert said.
Kokkonen said the European Council, which represents the bloc's 27 members, the European Parliament and the commission have until September 7 to present their arguments against the freeze.
A hearing would likely follow soon after and the judge would then decide whether to keep the suspension in place until a final ruling is made on the legality of the ban.
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.
The European Parliament announced the ban last year after public outcry over Canada's annual commercial seal hunt, which animal rights activists denounce as cruel.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose government is defending the sealers at the World Trade Organization, described the ban as "completely unfair" and "flagrant discrimination" against Canadian sealers who have been following established rules of animal husbandry.
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.
The native Canadian organisation Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) cheered the decision by European General Court president Marc Jaeger to suspend the ban.
"In our view, the seal ban is both illegal and immoral," said ITK president Mary Simon, urging the European Parliament to "see fit at this stage to do the right thing and withdraw its legislation."
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