The United States has finally won the World Trade Organisation (WTO) case that challenged its ban on the import of shrimp caught by vessels without using turtle-excluder devices.
In a ruling delivered on October 22, the WTO Appellate Body said the implementation of the US sea turtle protection law was fully consistent with WTO rules. It also said the US had complied with its earlier order to end unfair discrimination between shrimp exporting nations.
The litigation on this issue began in 1996 when India, Malaysia, Thailand and Pakistan challenged the shrimp-turtle law of the US under the WTO disputes settlement procedure. They had maintained that it was inappropriate for the US to prescribe their national conservation policies for other nations as well.
Initially, these countries managed to get a favourable decision from the disputes panel in April 1998 when it ruled that the measure was inconsistent with Article XI of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) which provided that WTO members would not impose any import restrictions.
But this was subsequently partially reversed by the WTO Appellate Body in response to an appeal by the US.
The number of sea turtles have tended to decline sharply over the years. This is attributed to excessive harvesting of sea turtles and their eggs and to accidental mortality associated with shrimp trawling and other fishing operations. Consequently, many species of sea turtles have become threatened with extinction.
The WTO Appellate Body said in its order in October 1998 that the US law for conservation of sea turtles was covered by the GATT exception for measures relating to conservation of exhaustible natural resources.
But, at the same time, this body found that the US had implemented the law in a way that resulted in unfair discrimination between exporting nations. It stated that WTO members might adopt environmental conservation measures such as the US law on turtle protection as long as they were administered in an even-handed manner and did not amount to disguised protectionism.
The US and other parties to the dispute, including India, subsequently reached an agreement on a 13-month compliance period which ended in December 1999.
However, though the other shrimp exporting countries took steps to introduce turtle-excluder devices in shrimp catching, Malaysia once again approached the WTO, seeking a review of the whole issue