CITES Secretary-General's remarks at the WTO 20th Anniversary Event – Trade and Environment, Geneva, Switzerland

Updated on 12 January 2021

WTO 20th Anniversary Event – Trade and Environment
20 Years of Building Pathways to Sustainable Development

Address by John E. Scanlon, Secretary-General of CITES

28 April 2015, Geneva


Ambassador Kairamo

Distinguished Guests

I would like to thank Director General Azevêdo and our colleagues here at the World Trade Organization (WTO)  for inviting us to participate in this 20th Anniversary event.


"Over the past twenty years there has not been a single WTO
dispute directly challenging a CITES trade
measure" John E. Scanlon. Secretary-General, CITES.

At Rio+20 in 2012, CITES was described as an international agreement that stands at the intersection between trade, the environment and development. This can be quite a dangerous intersection at which to stand but it is a very apt description of CITES.

A quick reminder about CITES. The Convention was signed in Washington DC in 1973 and it entered into force in 1975. There are 181 Parties to the Convention, with the latest Party being the European Union – although the 28 Member States of the EU have been Parties to CITES for some time. CITES regulates international trade in over 35,000 species of fauna and flora, or plants and animals, and affords them various levels of protection based upon agreed biological criteria. The objective of CITES is to ensure that wild fauna and flora is not unsustainably exploited through international trade.  CITES does not encourage or discourage trade – it regulates trade in CITES listed species where it  occurs to be sure it is legal, sustainable and traceable. There are about one million legal trade transactions reported to the Secretariat each year, which are included in our CITES Trade Data base, which is publicly accessible.


CITES relies upon trade measures to achieve its objectives and trade measures can be found throughout the Convention text as well as the Resolutions and Decisions adopted by the Parties.

CITES has harmoniously coexisted with the WTO and its predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), for the past 40 years.  Over the past twenty years, the relationship with the WTO may more accurately be described as mutually supportive and the CITES Secretariat has enjoyed observer status with the WTO Committee on Trade and Environment since 1997.


Over the past twenty years there has not been a single WTO dispute directly challenging a CITES trade measure.  CITES has however been referenced, such as in the US-Shrimp dispute in which marine turtles being listed on CITES Appendix I was cited in support of marine turtles being an “exhaustible natural resource” under GATT Article XX(g).

How has this been so?  How have CITES and the WTO managed to live together so well over the past twenty years?  How have CITES and the WTO managed to help countries manage the interface between trade and environment so successfully?

There are several factors that can be pointed to:

  • The GATT was consulted during the course of the drafting the Convention in the 1960’s and the Convention that was ultimately signed is well crafted and concise – the obligations of Parties are clear.
  • CITES is a multilateral agreement that takes multilateral decisions.
  • CITES is based upon rules developed in an open and transparent manner – and there is very active involvement of civil society in CITES.
  • CITES is science-based and it has a robust compliance mechanism, that is also used to help resolve disputes between Parties.

The WTO and CITES can be seen as two open and transparent rules-based regimes with robust dispute resolution mechanisms.

Such an approach has enabled CITES trade measures to fit neatly within Article XX (b) and/or (g) of the GATT and to satisfy the two requirements of the chapeau to Article XX.  The connection between CITES conservation and sustainable use objectives and trade measures are clear and through this multilateral, open and transparent process it is very hard for any Party to disguise protectionism or arbitrarily or unjustifiably discriminate between countries.

A Party may try to do so, but it must run the gauntlet of the 181 Parties to CITES and an assessment against the clear criteria and processes incorporated within it. The Convention does preserve the right for Parties to take stricter domestic measures. Such measures fall outside of the scope of the multilateral processes under CITES. 


A few trends we have observed over the past 10-20 years:

  • The Parties have developed a robust and well-used compliance process, which may carry sanctions. As sanction of last resort enables the Parties, through the Standing Committee, to make a recommendation of a trade suspension, and about thirty trade suspensions are currently in effect.
  • There has been an increasing number of timber species listed under CITES, which has grown from about 20 in 1975 to over 600 today, with many of these species being included by consensus in 2013 at the last meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP) to CITES.
  • There have been moves to include commercially traded  marine species under CITES, with five species of commercially traded sharks included under CITES at the last CoP in 2013.
  • There is  increasing involvement of transnational organized crime, and in some cases rebel militia, in the illegal trade in wildlife. These groups  are engaged in industrial-scale poaching and smuggling, and this developing trend has seen CITES Parties take powerful measures to combat the illegal trade in wildlife.
  • The use of technology, including through electronic permitting, the use of modern forensics – such as to date and locate illegally traded elephant ivory, and better traceability of products in trade.
  • The increasing level of interest and involvement of animal welfare and animal rights groups in the work of the Convention – and in this context we note the animal welfare concerns raised in the dispute between the EC and Canada/Norway regarding trade in seal products that was advanced under Article XX (a) on public morals rather than clauses (b) or (g).

These trends have placed further obligations on the Parties to CITES, especially developing countries.  CITES has responded through many targeted capacity building initiatives, such as:

  • Working with the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) on supporting the implementation of CITES for CITES listed tropical timber species.  For example, supporting Cameroon with the sustainable harvest of the bark of the African cherry for export to countries such as Switzerland.
  • Working with the FAO on implementing CITES for the CITES-listed marine species.  For example, supporting Caribbean States with ensuring that trade in the meat of the queen conch (e.g. to the US) is sustainable and on in the implementation of the new sharks listings, (where the entry into effect of the listing was extended from three to 18 months).
  • Working with other partners to ICCWC (the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime), which comprises  – the CITES Secretariat, Interpol, UNODC, the World Customs Organization and the World Bank – on providing coordinated support to countries and regions in combatting illegal trade in wildlife – such as the Wildlife Incident Support Team sent to Madagascar at the request of the President to assist it in combating illegal trade in rosewood.
  • Working with UNCTAD, the International Trade Centre (ITC) and UNDP on sustainable sourcing and local livelihoods, with UNEP and others on legislation and many more.
  • Finally, the adoption of the Trade Facilitation Agreement opens up new opportunities for collaboration between CITES and the WTO. The Trade Facilitation Agreement encourages the development of a single window and it includes significant references to capacity building.  CITES has developed guidelines for the implementation of electronic permitting – a more secure and a real-time means of regulating legal trade – and these guidelines have been built into the World Customs Organization data model.  In turn, this data model is often used in the development of single windows.  There is an opportunity to bring CITES, Customs, and trade ministries together to include CITES e-permitting systems  into the single window and thereby provide a more secure means of enabling and recording legal trade, enhancing the ability to harvest real-time data of the volumes and nature of trade, and making it easier to detect any potentially illegal or unsustainable trade.


Colleagues, the past twenty years have seen CITES and the WTO operate in a mutually supportive manner.  This is likely to continue and expand over the next twenty years.

We look forward to our ongoing collaboration and exchanges.

Thank you. 



See photos from the event.