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The Annihilation of Sea Turtles: World Trade Organization Intransigence and U.S. Equivocation

April 2000

Citation: ELR 10261

Author: Lakshman Guruswamy

In the case of United States-Import Prohibition of Certain Shrimp and Shrimp Products (US-Shrimp),1 the Appellate Body of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade's (GATT's) World Trade Organization (WTO)2 declared that actions taken by the United States to protect endangered sea turtles were GATT-illegal. Despite the official U.S. welcome extended to this decision,3 the conclusions of the Appellate Body challenge the freedom of the United States to make significant foreign and domestic policy decisions. By ignoring and effectively overruling decisions made by the U.S. judiciary, on the very same issues of U.S. constitutional and administrative law that the Appellate Body chose to decide, the US-Shrimp case has made unprecedented inroads into the sovereignty of the United States, and the protection of the environment. Not surprisingly, a growing surge of criticism leveled at the outcome of this case contributed to the outrage vividly demonstrated in Seattle in December 1999.

One result of the Seattle meeting is that the question of how the GATT/WTO may be reformed to incorporate environmental, human rights, and other goals is back on the agenda.4 The twisted tale of the US-Shrimp case demonstrates that the GATT/WTO is in urgent need of reform. Unfortunately, the Sysyphian task of reforming the GATT/WTO is a long and arduous undertaking in which the odds are heavily stacked against the reformers. While interstitial changes are tortuously negotiated in protracted sessions, the environment will continue to suffer at the hands of the GATT/WTO. In order to prevent this, it makes eminent sense for trade and environmental cases to be moved out of the GATT/WTO legal regime into more fair, open, and just tribunals.

Lakshman Guruswamy is Professor of Law, Director, National Energy-Environment Law & Policy Institute (NELPI), University of Tulsa. He thanks Matthew Hawkins (3L) for his perceptive and diligent research and editorial assistance.

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