IWC 2011 Day Four: the long and the short of it all

by orcalab

It turns out that yesterday’s unity may have been more of a lapse than a sign that real progress for whales might be achieved in the fractured body that is the IWC.

The morning began with an outline of the Order of Business for the last day of this 2011 meeting: Safety at Sea; Sanctuaries; Scientific permits; Environmental and health issues; Conservation management plans; whalewatching; co-operation with other organizations; other Scientific Committee activities; Conservation Committee; catches by non-member nations; infractions 2010 season; date and place of next meeting; election of Chair and Vice Chair; Advisory Committee; Summary of decisions and actions; Other matters.

It was a long list, but the Chair looked fresh and ready to roll when the meeting opened a little after 9am.  Though it got underway 38’ behind the planned schedule, the Chair’s method for ensuring brief interventions (cutting the mic off after 2’) offered promise.

As things turned out, only agenda item one, Safety at Sea, got past the starting gate.  Japan had done the work of preparing its resolution well, consulting widely and lining up supporters on all sides.   The language, while mentioning Sea Shepherd protests, was non-provocative and pointed to the primacy of the International Maritime Organisation in maritime safety issues.  It did not call on the Netherlands or Australia to do anything specific, but rather called on all governments to take “appropriate measures”.  Beyond Australia reiterating that it fulfils all its legal obligations, there was little comment, and the resolution slid through easily, by consensus.

The next agenda item was the proposed South Atlantic Whales Sanctuary.  It was introduced convincingly by Brazil, on behalf of the “Buenos Aires Group” (BAG) which consists of all the Latin American countries who are IWC members.   A lengthy list of brief statements were made in support, making it clear that a majority of members favour the proposal, and then Palau announced its opposition, citing an absence of scientific merit as its reason.  India appealed to Palau not to break consensus, which Palau eventually agreed to, but opposition sharpened when Iceland spoke against the proposal.

Just an hour into the day, after the first NGO interventions of the meeting were made, the Chair called for a half hour coffee break, to allow time for the sides to come together.  The break turned out to last a full hour, at the end of which a rumour spread that Japan was prepared to walk out with its supporters, denying the meeting a quorum, if a vote was called for.   That is exactly what happened next.  When appeals by Ecuador and Columbia fell on deaf ears, the Chair asked the Secretary to prepare for a vote.  Monaco pointed out that voting in a democracy is not a bad thing, that in fact it is normal when agreement can’t be reached, and that it is a right even a single country could insist on.  After Poland suggested a short break, the Chair asked if Brazil and Argentina wanted to go for a vote.  When they replied affirmatively, Japan rose and left the room, taking along Cambodia, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Gambia, Iceland, Norway, Nauru, Mongolia, Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau, Grenada, Kiribati, Morocco, Korea, Ghana, Palau, Togo, Russia, Tuvalu, St. Kitts and Nevis, and St. Lucia.

At 1156 am the Chair called for a private Commissioners meeting, suggesting it would take just 10 minutes.  Eight hours passed, during which the Chair made several appearances announcing delays.  As time passed, the rumour circulated that this meeting would simply end without further discussion, and the South Atlantic Sanctuary proposal would become the first item on the agenda of next year’s meeting.  That is what happened in the end, possibly because at one point the Chair threatened to resign if a vote was held.

At 8:33pm, after a document outlining what had happened was distributed, the Chair finally brought the meeting back to order.  There was no further discussion of substantive matters.  All the items on the long list of unfinished business, including the lengthy report of the Conservation Committee, which had done a great deal of work, were agreed without comment or debate.  Voting for the Chair and Vice Chair will be by mail.

Next year’s meeting will be held in Panama.