Setting back a cause

Today, in handing Denmark and Greenland the victory it sought – the right to kill 27 humpback whales over the next 3 years – the IWC has inflicted a serious blow to the cause of indigenous people around the world.  No-one at this meeting doubts that indigenous people have been oppressed for far too long, that they have legitimate claims, needs and aspirations, and should be able to pursue their lives with dignity.  In this room, however, there is considerable confusion as to how to honour this view.  It has become quite clear, over the past several days, that Greenland’s “need” is complicated.  Yes, there are many communities in far flung places around Greenland where life is difficult, but there are also communities in which the standard of living is better than most places in the world.  As the Commissioner for Monaco pointed out, the average household income for West Greenland, where the humpbacks will be killed, is 55,000 Euros per year.  Moreover, huge harvests of fish and shellfish occur.  Added to the legal supply of meat from minke and fin whales, and the illegal killing of more than 3,000 tons of “small cetaceans” annually, the conclusion is easily drawn that there is more than enough food for the people of West Greenland.  Well documented commercial sales emphasise the point, and no “needs” statement has been provided.  The question arises then, why insist, to the point of causing a possible rupture in the the IWC, on killing humpback whales?  There is no need.

The debate that led to the decision today was long and difficult.  Thanks to an insulting intervention by the Commissioner for St. Kitts & Nevis, Daven Joseph, a fight almost broke out.  Chairman Livingstone twice suspended the open discussion to allow private discussions between groups – one between Denmark & the EU, and another between countries opposed – and eventually got his way, as did Denmark and Greenland.  The decision was by “consensus”.

This is a sad day, not just for the humpback whales of the north Atlantic, but for indigenous people collectively, because the decision of the IWC will make if more difficult for other indigenous people to pursue their legitimate claims.  When one charade succeeds, others will be tempted.  How will future legitimate and illegitimate claims be discriminated?  Quite possibly, not easily.  Greenlanders may be celebrating this day, but their indigenous brethren may rue it.

Posted by Paul Spong

The Damocles effect

The feeling in the room this morning was perceptibly lighter than earlier this week.  It wasn’t just me, I checked around, and others felt it too.  Yesterday’s decision to abandon the attempt to toss the moratorium into history produced a ripple that reached not just the diehard whale savers, but the wafflers and even those who were convinced that knocking off a few whales would ultimately be good for the rest.   It was a difficult formula to sell, so once the attempt had been made, and failed, the logical next thing to do was move on.  Possibly, the mental relief this brought explains the better sleep many participants had last night.  Today began with smiles.

Unfortunately, the turf the meeting moved onto is comprised of a tricky substance with a familiar feel, so the smiles soon turned into groans.  “Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling” is what has transformed the USA from the whales’ greatest hope into a whalers’ whipping post.   Every time the IWC debates the renewal of quotas for the killing of bowhead whales that provide food for Alaska’s northern communities, the USA finds itself in a very difficult place, wanting on the one hand to satisfy the needs and demands of its aboriginal people, and on the other the wishes of Americans who love whales.  The whalers, led by Japan, have become very adept at applying subtle (or open) pressure on US delegations at IWC meetings.  If the US comes down too hard on the whalers, they might react, and in a fit of pique, refuse to help Alaska’s indigenous people.  Knowing that the axe (or sword) could fall, the US tends to walk on tippy toes at these meetings.

It is understandable that the US fights hard for bowhead quotas, and to a large extent the broad American public has come to accept this.  Just the same, the issue puts the US in a very difficult position at IWC meetings when the bowhead quota is on the table.  That wasn’t necessarily the case this year, as the present 5 year block quota runs through 2012, but aboriginal quotas were worked into the “deal” that fell apart yesterday.  Quite possibly, the greatest appeal of the deal for the USA was that it would settle the bowhead quota issue for 13 years, a very long time in IWC and US politics.

Last night, as the meeting broke up, the US hastily filed a request with the IWC Secretariat that would separate aboriginal quotas from the rest of the “package” that formed the dead deal.  The move was immediately seized on by Japan, which sees the US request as one more chance to raise the “future” issue at this meeting.  For Japan, the opportunity to poke away at US resolve was irresistible.   As a consequence, the meeting has once again become embroiled in the debate over aboriginal whaling.  It seems quite doubtful that US delegates are getting much sleep tonight.

One bright spot from this day – at the very end, for a little over half an hour, NGOS were finally given a chance to speak!

Posted by Paul Spong

Some links to related stories:

Over the moon

This day ended with a reception hosted by Australia for the purpose of explaining the non-lethal scientific programme it is engaged in with other Southern Hemisphere countries.  The research is wide-ranging, creative in the technology it uses, and very costly.  Developing acoustic techniques for tracking and counting blue whales is an example.  It’s exciting science, and a great demonstration of the real commitment Australia is making towards forging a future for the IWC that focuses on whales, not whaling.  In footing the bill, Australia is putting its money where its mouth is, proving its commitment to one and all.  The reception turned into a bit of a party, partly because wine & beer were provided along with water & soft drinks, but also because there was a tangible sense of relief among those present – pro-whale delegates and NGOs – who had emerged at the end of a long day knowing for sure that legally sanctioned commercial whaling is not about to start again.  The moratorium on commercial whaling is safe for the moment. Given the extreme jeopardy the moratorium appeared to be facing when this meeting began, the knowledge was cause for celebration.  It’s not a stretch to say that some of those present were over the moon.

It actually took just moments at the beginning of this day for the certainty that the “deal” was dead to emerge. Chairman Livingstone, in his opening remarks, which reviewed the 10 intercessional meetings that had been held since the Commission met in Alaska 3 years ago, and the work that was done over the last 2 days, quickly revealed that many differences between parties remain unsettled, trade and “scientific” whaling among them.  The tone of his comments was dour – the process had been useful in that exchanges had been cordial and frank, but no consensus had been reached.  Japan led off the commentary, saying that it was willing to compromise to some extent, but unwilling to commit to zero after 10 years of legal whaling in the Antarctic.  The next 3 hours were occupied by statements from more than a score of member countries, which essentially reiterated positions they had long held.  By the time the meeting broke up for lunch, the divide between pro and anti whalers seemed as deep as ever.  Pretty much everyone praised the process, and the attempt, but apart from New Zealand and the USA, the anti whaling side seemed as entrenched as ever, and Japan could not bring itself to step over the line.

Following a 2-hour break, the meeting got onto routine business, starting the review of the Scientific Committe report. This is usually where IWC meetings start, but today was the afternoon of Day 3, with little time left and a long way to go.  We learned that though the assessment of minke whales in the Antarctic is incomplete, the decline in their numbers is probably real and that we should know the magnitude of the decline by next year.  Japan thinks that whatever number is agreed next year, there are plenty of minkes, and the small numbers it is killing won’t make any difference to the population.    Most humpback populations are increasing, though not all.  The right whales of Patagonia are experiencing heavy mortality, which is cause for considerable concern.  Western grey whales remain in serious trouble, with a tiny remnant population facing dire threats from seismic exploration in critical habitat near the Sakhalin Islands.   It will not be surprising if the species soon goes extinct, like the baiji, which has finally disappeared altogether, and on the IWC’s watch.

Equally dismaying was the way in which welfare issues were dealt with. Usually, they are at least on the agenda of IWC meetings, though short-changed, but this year they aren’t even on the list of topics, and the committee that deals with them has not even met once during the past year.  It was encouraging to hear the UK offer to conduct a workshop on welfare issues before next year’s meeting, but that did little to allay the sense that the suffering whales experience at the hands of whalers matters little to the IWC.  About the only bright spot in this zone is the attention that entanglements, which can involve enormous suffering, are getting. There is hope in this development, though not for the hundreds of whales that are entangled annually in Japanese and Korean fishing nets, and invariably end up dead.  Regarded as “bycatch” they are sold.

Tomorrow, it must be said, is going to be a very difficult day.  Apparently, the USA will try to amend the Schedule so that Aboriginal Subsistence quotas are locked in for the next 10 years.  Doing so will require a 3/4 majority vote.  Ordinarily, this might not be difficult to achieve, given that there is a great deal of sympathy for aboriginal needs, and the Commission generally gives aboriginal whalers what they ask for.  On this occasion, however, the situation has become complicated.  Denmark, on behalf of Greenland, has inserted 10 humpback whales into the table of permitted aboriginal kills.  There will be some sympathy for Greenland’s request in the room, but evidence that meat from whales killed for “aboriginal” purposes ends up on supermarket shelves and hotel dinner plates will also create skepticism.  That may lead to resistance.

If a fight breaks out tomorrow, one casualty may be the brief opportunity NGOs have been granted to address the meeting.  This was supposed to happen at the end of today, but today ran late, and the chairman has pushed the NGO slot to the end of tomorrow.  Odds are on tomorrow running late too.

Posted by Paul Spong

Some story links: