The RSPCA says European Union proposals to stop the sale of cosmetics tested on animals and fur from wildlife caught in leghold traps were watered down because of fears they could have been challenged at the WTO by exporting countries.
If the objection had gone to a disputes panel and Brussels had lost, says the RSPCA, the EU would have been forced to lift the ban. Instead the EU put forward weaker proposals in an effort to guarantee they would be enforced.
The World Trade Organisation was set up as the guardian of the latest GATT treaty to replace a previous informal mechanism aimed at resolving disputes. Now the WTO has been given the power to adjudicate in commercial disputes between countries and under its rules, it has to put free trade first.
In its report "Conflict or Concord? Animal Welfare and the WTO", the RSPCA says this is foolish. "If the policy of trade liberalisation is allowed to supersede policies to protect people, animals and the environment, public support for the multilateral trading system may be lost."
The nub of the problem, it says, is the rule that prevents one country from imposing its ethical standards on another through trade policies such as bans and labelling.
In the case of leghold traps, the EU was forced to negotiate an agreement with Canada, the US and Russia, which allowed the continued use of "padded" traps, following a threat by the exporters to take the EU to the WTO. Meanwhile, this month, the European Commission has published a proposed law on labelling eggs according to whether hens were free range or caged. It only applies to EU eggs: imported products will not be covered by the rule and the RSPCA says that WTO rules are the bugbear yet again.
It is the same with a dispute between the US and some Asian countries. Washington was banning their shrimp exports, because their fishermen were not using devices that safeguard the endangered marine turtle. A WTO panel has ruled that the US ban on turtle-unfriendly shrimps is a non- starter.
The RSPCA report says: "In practice, the WTO, through the narrow application of its rules, is failing to acknowledge the pivotal role of trade in the execution of effective domestic policy measures."
But Philip Ruttley, secretary of the World Trade Law Association, warned: "Animal treatment laws should not become a disguised trade barrier."Reuse content