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GENEVA (Reuters) - Seal pelt exporter Canada won the right on Friday to have its grievance against a European Union import ban heard through the World Trade Organization's (WTO) court system.
The issue, which centers on an animal welfare controversy around seal hunting, now goes before a panel of the WTO's Dispute Settlement Body.
A panel can take up to nine months to publicly release its findings. Disputes can take much longer than that to resolve should an appeal be lodged.
The European Union closed its borders to seal products last year when an EU court allowed the ban to proceed despite Canada's objections.
The EU has said its law banning seal product imports respects its international obligations while responding to the concerns expressed by EU citizens about seal products from hunts which involve shooting seals and clubbing them to death.
Exports of seal pelts and other seal products from Canada to the EU are worth only a few million dollars, but Canada is keen to preserve the livelihoods of people in coastal and northern communities who depend on the annual seal harvest.
"The facts are that the Canadian seal harvest is lawful, sustainable, strictly regulated and guided by rigorous animal welfare principles," Canada's delegation to the WTO said in a statement.
The EU said on Friday it would defend its position.
The WTO also set up a separate panel to hear a much older Canadian grievance about seal product import bans. The complaint is much the same as the one against the EU, but was leveled at EU members Belgium and the Netherlands in 2007, before the EU-wide ban was put in place.
A third panel on the subject could be established next month at the request of another seal exporter, Norway.
Editing by Laura MacInnis and Catherine Evans