The United States is unlikely to veto an international ruling calling for a change in U.S. dolphin-protection law, but is expected to ignore the decision to signal that such rulings are not a threat to U.S. sovereignty, according to U.S. officials.
A dispute panel of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) ruled late last week that the U.S. law violates free-trade rules by blocking imports of tuna - most of it from Mexican fishing boats - caught in a way that kills dolphins normally swimming with the fish. GATT is the organization that enforces world trade rules.While the amount of trade in the latest case is small - some $300,000 a year - the ruling has put Clinton administration officials on edge because it could be used by opponents of a new GATT agreement to argue that the organization will become a forum for challenging U.S. environmental law.
The new case, covering those countries that process the tuna and re-sell it to other nations, is an outgrowth of an earlier dispute with Mexico over its net-fishing practices. To smooth the way for free-trade negotiations at that time, Mexico agreed to suspend its complaint against the United States after winning a GATT ruling that called for changes to the U.S. law.
That was not possible in the new case on the "secondary" effects of the U.S. tuna embargo, because there are a number of European Union countries objecting.
Meanwhile, there are reports that the United States and Mexico are trying to settle the tuna-dolphin dispute and work out a deal to lift the U.S. tuna embargo while locking in the major reforms that Mexico has already made in the way its fleet catches tuna. The House and Senate would have to agree to changes to U.S. law to allow this compromise, something that did not happen when an earlier deal failed to be enacted.
Environmentalists said there was one bright spot in the new ruling: Unlike previous GATT decisions, it allowed for the possible use of extraterritorial trade action to enforce an environmental standard.
Dan Esty, environmental expert at the Institute for International Economics, said this decision could fit into a framework he proposes in a new book for dealing with trade and the environment. He suggests authorizing unilateral trade action when clear international standards are violated, or when internationally recognized principles are breached.