Inuit groups in Canada and Greenland are taking the European Union to court over its import ban on products derived from the seal hunt.
The lawsuit, announced Wednesday in Ottawa, aims to overturn the ban adopted by 27 European countries last year. The court documents have been filed in the European General Court, the first level of the EU's court system.
The coalition of groups involved in the lawsuit includes the Canadian Inuit organization Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Inuit Circumpolar Council in Greenland and several Inuit individuals from both countries.
"I suppose the best alternative would be for the EU not to have adopted this legislation, but that ship has sailed," Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Mary Simon told CBC News on Wednesday.
"We are seizing the moment and we've gone to court."
Inuit exemption unclear: Simon
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit say they will counter the main premise of the EU ban — that seal hunting is a cruel and inhumane practice.
They will also argue there is no environmental justification for the trade ban and that seal populations are healthy and are being harvested at reasonable levels.
The EU's trade ban includes a partial exemption for seal products from Inuit sealers, but the Inuit groups say the terms of the exemption are not clear.
"It doesn't explain at all what they mean by an exemption," Simon said.
Simon also argued that since Inuit have been hunting seals for food, clothing and trade for many generations, the idea of Europeans banning their product is "cultural bias" at best.
As well, she accused EU legislators of adopting what she called a "legally defective" ban, despite "advance warning by their own lawyers."
The Inuit lawsuit is separate from the Canadian government's challenge of the EU ban to the World Trade Organization.
Canadian officials have argued the country's seal hunt is humane, sustainable and well regulated.
Ban hurts Greenland communities
Inuit from Greenland have had to export their products to the European market, much like Canada does, because Greenland opted out of the European Union in 1985 over a different fishery dispute.
Inuit Circumpolar Council Greenland president Aqqaluk Lynge said the EU trade ban has killed the market for seal products and hurt the economies of about 50 small Greenland communities.
"It is a significant part of the income of the small hunting communities," he said. "We have a right to sell our products as long as it's not destroying the ecological balance."
European Union officials have yet to respond to the lawsuit.