India etc versus US: ‘shrimp-turtle’

A case brought by India, Malaysia, Pakistan and Thailand against the US. The appellate and panel reports were adopted in 1998.

“... We have not decided that the sovereign nations that are Members of the WTO cannot adopt effective measures to protect endangered species, such as sea turtles. Clearly, they can and should. ...”

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United States — Import Prohibition of Certain Shrimp and Shrimp Products

WTO case Nos. 58 (and 61). Ruling adopted on 6 November 1998

Seven species of sea turtles have to date been identified. They are distributed around the world in subtropical and tropical areas. They spend their lives at sea, where they migrate between their foraging and nesting grounds.

Sea turtles have been adversely affected by human activity, either directly (their meat, shells and eggs have been exploited), or indirectly (incidental capture in fisheries, destruction of their habitats, pollution of the oceans).

In early 1997, India, Malaysia, Pakistan and Thailand brought a joint complaint against a ban imposed by the US on the importation of certain shrimp and shrimp products. The protection of sea turtles was at the heart of the ban.

The US Endangered Species Act of 1973 listed as endangered or threatened the five species of sea turtles that occur in US waters, and prohibited their “take” within the US, in its territorial sea and the high seas. (“Take” means harassment, hunting, capture, killing or attempting to do any of these.)

Under the act, the US required that US shrimp trawlers use “turtle excluder devices” (TEDs) in their nets when fishing in areas where there is a significant likelihood of encountering sea turtles.

Section 609 of US Public Law 101–102, enacted in 1989, dealt with imports. It said, among other things, that shrimp harvested with technology that may adversely affect certain sea turtles may not be imported into the US — unless the harvesting nation was certified to have a regulatory programme and an incidental take-rate comparable to that of the US, or that the particular fishing environment of the harvesting nation did not pose a threat to sea turtles.

In practice, countries that had any of the five species of sea turtles within their jurisdiction,and harvested shrimp with mechanical means, had to impose on their fishermen requirements comparable to those borne by US shrimpers if they wanted to be certified to export shrimp products to the US. Essentially this meant the use of TEDs at all time.

Many have missed the importance of the Appellate Body’s ruling on this case.

In its report, the Appellate Body made clear that under WTO rules, countries have the right to take trade action to protect the environment (in particular, human, animal or plant life and health) and endangered species and exhaustible resources). The WTO does not have to “allow” them this right.

It also said measures to protect sea turtles would be legitimate under GATT Article 20 (i.e. XX) which deals with various exceptions to the WTO’s trade rules, provided certain criteria such as non-discrimination were met.

The US lost the case, not because it sought to protect the environment but because it discriminated between WTO members. It provided countries in the western hemisphere — mainly in the Caribbean — technical and financial assistance and longer transition periods for their fishermen to start using turtle-excluder devices.

It did not give the same advantages, however, to the four Asian countries (India, Malaysia, Pakistan and Thailand) that filed the complaint with the WTO.

The ruling also said WTO panels may accept “amicus briefs” (friends of the court submissions) from NGOs or other interested parties.

Legally speaking ...

The Panel considered that the ban imposed by the US was inconsistent with GATT Article XI (which limits the use of import prohibitions or restrictions), and could not be justified under GATT Article XX (which deals with general exceptions to the rules, including for certain environmental reasons).

Following an appeal, the Appellate Body found that the measure at stake did qualify for provisional justification under Article XX(g), but failed to meet the requirements of the chapeau (the introductory paragraph) of Article XX (which defines when the general exceptions can be cited).

The Appellate Body therefore concluded that the US measure was not justified under Article XX of GATT (strictly speaking, “GATT 1994”, i.e. the current version of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade as modified by the 1994 Uruguay Round agreement).

At the request of Malaysia, the original panel in this case considered the measures taken by the United States to comply with the recommendations and rulings of the Dispute Settlement Body. The panel report for this recourse was appealed by Malaysia. The Appellate Body upheld the panel's findings that the US measure was now applied in a manner that met the requirements of Article XX of the GATT 1994.

United States Ś Shrimp: Implementation Phase (Article 21.5)

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‘We wish to underscore what we have not decided ...’

What the Appellate Body said:

“185.  In reaching these conclusions, we wish to underscore what we have not decided in this appeal. We have not decided that the protection and preservation of the environment is of no significance to the Members of the WTO. Clearly, it is. We have not decided that the sovereign nations that are Members of the WTO cannot adopt effective measures to protect endangered species, such as sea turtles. Clearly, they can and should. And we have not decided that sovereign states should not act together bilaterally, plurilaterally or multilaterally, either within the WTO or in other international fora, to protect endangered species or to otherwise protect the environment. Clearly, they should and do.

“186.  What we have decided in this appeal is simply this: although the measure of the United States in dispute in this appeal serves an environmental objective that is recognized as legitimate under paragraph (g) of Article XX of the GATT 1994, this measure has been applied by the United States in a manner which constitutes arbitrary and unjustifiable discrimination between Members of the WTO, contrary to the requirements of the chapeau of Article XX. For all of the specific reasons outlined in this Report, this measure does not qualify for the exemption that Article XX of the GATT 1994 affords to measures which serve certain recognized, legitimate environmental purposes but which, at the same time, are not applied in a manner that constitutes a means of arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination between countries where the same conditions prevail or a disguised restriction on international trade. As we emphasized in United States — Gasoline [adopted 20 May 1996, WT/DS2/AB/R, p. 30], WTO Members are free to adopt their own policies aimed at protecting the environment as long as, in so doing, they fulfill their obligations and respect the rights of other Members under the WTO Agreement.”