A new chance for whales


Hovering in the background or perhaps above the 65th meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in Portoroz, Slovenia, is the March 2014 decision of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) which declared Japan’s so-called “scientific” whaling in the Antarctic a thinly disguised form of commercial whaling, and ordered it halted immediately. Japan complied, in a manner of speaking, announcing that it would not return to the Antarctic next season. However, it immediately went about plotting counter measures aimed at resuming Antarctic Whaling at the soonest possible moment. Japan’s current plan seems to be one of fine-tuning its old rejected plan, making it more “scientific” and less blatantly commercial. It is difficult to see how Japan can accomplish this without bending or breaking the rules that govern science and fair play. Nevertheless, Japan seems bent on trying.

Japan’s decision to keep on fighting a fight it cannot win is an enormous waste of opportunity. The Court’s decision, to which there was no appeal, gave it a chance to bow out of an increasingly impossible situation gracefully. By doing so, it would have gained stature in its international relations and gained friends in places where it now only sees enemies. Full compliance, including a dismantling of Japan’s pelagic whaling fleet would have garnered Japan a moment of such international good will that achieving its dream of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council may well have come within reach. That dream now lies in tatters.

Oddly, Japan has not come to this meeting with a plan in hand. It has talked about creating one, and apparently will use its time here lobbying and searching out sympathetic ears. But no document has been tabled; no resolution has been proposed; there is not even a sign that Japan will call on the Scientific Committee to evaluate its new plan, though that would be an essential step. If this is a strategy, it’s a strange one.

Also strange, is the place the ICJ decision is going to hold in the proceedings over the next four days. Despite the earthquake nature of the Court’s ruling, a shake up that should have woken everyone up, it does not have a central role in the agenda.  The closest it will come is in the form of discussion of scientific permits.  A resolution proposed by New Zealand aimed at regulating special permit (“scientific”) whaling is also being circulated.  Perhaps the intent is to keep Japan in check, but given the tendency in recent meetings for resolutions to vanish from the agenda because time runs out, even this sideways reference to the most important development in recent IWC history, literally a new chance for whales, might not even make it to the floor.

We shall see.

Meanwhile, the simple truth is that for the first time in well over 100 years, whales will not die in agony in Antarctic waters during the coming southern summer. The accompanying silence will be as profound as that which followed the cessation of hostilities in World War I. Despite the passage of time, people around the world still pause at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month each year to remember that moment in 1918 when suddenly, there was peace.

by Paul Spong

September 14, 2014

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