Darkness and light

It may turn out that the decision of Chairman Livingstone to take the meeting behind closed doors for 2 days of “negotiations” was a strategic error.  The (mostly) men who emerge at coffee breaks from the room they are closeted in are invariably clad in dark clothes, far too dark for this friendly climate, and do not look happy.  At lunchtime, a burst of light emerged in the form of Australia’s Environment Minister Peter Garrett, who informed a press conference convened by WSPA and other NGOs “The Chair’s proposal is no longer alive”.   Australia’s opposition to any deal that does not include a rapid phase down to zero of “scientific” or any other kind of whaling in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary is well known, but it was easy to conclude from Minister Garrett’s words that Australia is not alone. Whether other nations share Australia’s vision of a future for the IWC that focuses more on whales than whaling may be known by the end of this week, but meanwhile the anxious NGO mob milling around on the outside has cause for hope.  If the “deal” is dead, it seems unlikely to be resurrected in any similar form soon, though face saving discussions may continue.  The way “forward” will then consist of 2 possibilities: either the IWC will split up and vanish, or it will evolve.  My bet is on the latter, i.e. that the truly important work the Commission is doing in (non-lethal) science, and in addressing urgent conservation issues such as ship strikes, ocean noise and climate change, will continue and become more and more the focus of the Commission’s work.  There is hope indeed, for whales and the world’s oceans, in Australia’s vision, and I have no doubt that its vision is widely shared.

Interestingly, the absence of news to report on from the Plenary, made the periphery of the meeting attractive enough to the substantial media contingent still present, to focus intense attention on what might otherwise have been smaller stories.  In mid afternoon, when the Plenary would normally have been in session, commanding most of the media attention, Avaaz.org presented it’s now 1,000,000 plus petition against renewed commercial whaling to Minister Peter Garrett, who accepted it on behalf of the uncounted citizens of the world who care about whales.  The petition took just 5 weeks to reach the million mark, and is still growing rapidly, a fact that left a clear impression on the media swarm that surrounded the event.   Garrett himself also left a clear impression, speaking with clarity and energy about the issues facing whales and the IWC.  Ultimately, he had to cut the questioning short and headed off to his next meeting with a covey of cameras following him.

A short time later, another well-attended press conference occurred, in which Greenpeace Japan’s Junichi Sato spoke about the corruption involved in Japan’s high seas whaling, and the trial in which he is accused of theft of whale meat (after handing whale meat stolen by whalers to police).  Despite the likelihood that he will be sentenced to 18 months in prison, Junichi was calm and steadfast, even presenting an optimistic view of Japan’s future.  He was joined by another Greenpeacer who defended the organisation’s decision to join Pew and WWF in their attempt to steer the IWC in a direction which would see limited commercial whaling resume in return for greater control under the IWC.  Many here, including most if not all of the pro-whale NGOs are puzzled, even angered by Greenpeace’s stance, given the organisation’s long history of opposition to commercial whaling.

Buzzing about in the background, among both media and NGOs are the stories of bribery by Japan – votes in exchange for aid, cash, and girls – that have received widespread attention in world media, and cannot help but be impacting the mood of the discussions taking place behind those closed and guarded doors.  A brief press statement from the Secretariat this morning described the discussions as useful, respectful and cordial – hard to believe, but in the unreality zone we are in at this meeting, perhaps it’s true.

Fortunately, Chairman Livingstone, in handing out his instructions before the Plenary broke up on Monday, asked each of the “negotiating” groups to appoint a rapporteur.   Tomorrow, we may know more about what really happened in that dark and dismal room.

Posted by Paul Spong

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