Stumbling towards the finish line

IWC 2012 Day Four

Helena wanted me to call this piece “the only thing wrong with the IWC is whaling” but it seemed a bit long and I already had the above thought in my head.  Just the same, she does have a point.  There is so much good work being done, and great people involved in the IWC that were it not for whaling it could have a future that helps whales, oceans and people alike.  Unfortunately, the reality is that each step forward is accompanied by at least one step sideways and often another back.

Today’s discussion of a resolution about health issues, presented by Cyprus on behalf of the EU was a perfect example.  Germany was primarily responsible for the idea and text, which initially drew a straight line between human consumption of whale products and serious health problems that have been revealed in pregnant women, children and adults in numerous places, including the Faroe Islands and the Canadian Arctic.  It’s so sad.  The culprits are not the whales or the people who eat them, but a long list of contaminants that includes deadly mercury.  Japan’s history with mercury poisoning is recent enough that one might think a neon warning sign would be flashing in the sky above the room, but it wasn’t so.  What we got was a series of revisions to the document that were partly proposed by Nordic whalers and partly by Japan’s cronies.  The upshot was a document full of variations on the theme of “some species in some areas” have negative impacts on human health, and by golly, there are positives to eating whales too. The USA was responsible for the latter at a point in the discussion that followed an Australian amendment that made a pointed reference to “scientific” whaling.  St. Kitts and Nevis did a bit of fancy footwork around this time that got a reference to active cooperation with the World Health Organization diluted into an exchange of information.  In the end, Australia withdrew its proposal, and St. Kitts & Nevis got its way, as did the USA.  The document that was agreed was nonetheless greeted with congratulatory enthusiasm, because it was achieved by consensus.  That is another tricky word in this room, but fortunately the Swiss Chair has been quick enough on his feet to avoid being ruled by it.  It would have been interesting to see a vote on the original text, with Australia’s amendment included, as there would have been majority support for it.  But on balance, having the entire Commission agree that human health can be a big problem for eaters of whales is worth having, Eventually, we will see if it gets noticed, as would have happened had the IWC’s message been clear.

If that was the high point of this day, the lowest was the resounding defeat of Denmark’s proposal on behalf of Greenland that would have sanctioned a substantial increase in numbers of whales killed by Greenland for “aboriginal and subsistence” purposes.  Denmark and Greenland should have seen this train coming two days ago, and figured out a way to get off the track.  They didn’t, or rather chose not to, and insisted on a vote on their original request.  They got 43% support, far short of the ¾ majority demanded by IWC rules, and even short of a simple majority they could have claimed as a moral victory.  Probably, the one bright spot for Greenland was the support of the USA, which has no objection to the commercialization of aboriginal whaling, whatever its form, and offers knee jerk support to whoever asks.  Following the vote on Greenland’s request, there was a long series of explanations by EU members and others, who despite expressions of sympathy for aboriginal peoples were unable to stomach the open sale of whale products in Greenland’s restaurants and supermarkets.  Naturally, the “use” faction proclaimed the vote as racist, bigoted and an assault on the rights of impoverished peoples, none of which was true, but the after vote taste in many mouths was sour and sad.  Precisely why Greenland and Denmark insisted on sticking to its demand is beyond me.  They could have got most of what they wanted, certainly more than actual need, if they had been willing to bend even a little.  After the vote, Denmark said they would go home to think, but there is wide expectation that Greenland will simply decide to go its own way and set its own quotas, as Canada does now. Poor whales.

Up to this point, the Chair has done a masterful job of keeping the meeting on track, avoiding detours adroitly, and crossing one agenda item off after another until there are just a few left.  He even managed to handle the meeting’s first point of order, loudly raised by St. Kitts & Nevis, by mildly acknowledging Commissioner Daven Joseph’s superior linguistic skills.  It wasn’t until mid afternoon that a real sign emerged that told us the road to the end of this meeting is by no means clear. The moment came when Monaco introduced its resolution aimed at bringing a much wider world into discussing the fate of whales.  Monaco wants to involve the United Nations, not to take over the role of the IWC but to help deal with the fact that most migratory species of cetaceans are beyond IWC control, and that bad things are happening to whales that the IWC cannot control – unregulated whaling in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary being an explicit example.

The pushback began in the form of questions initiated by Japan about precisely when Monaco’s document was submitted.  Perhaps it did not meet the Commission’s 6pm the day before discussion deadline; and perhaps it had been changed so much from previous drafts that it was an entirely new resolution. Time passed while the Secretariat verified by time stamp on the document that it had indeed been submitted on time, at 5:30pm the day before, that it had taken 20 minutes to print the document, and that distribution had started at 5:50pm, ending at 6:12pm the day before.  The document had additionally been posted on the Commission’s web site, but after Norway claimed that it had failed multiple times to access it, the Chair finally asked Monaco to agree to postponing the discussion until tomorrow.  Possibly reluctantly but with good humour, Monaco agreed.

First thing tomorrow, Day 5, the last of this meeting, Monaco will begin again.

By Paul Spong,

July 5, 2012

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