IWC 2011: afterthoughts – back to the brink


One would never have known it, observing the celebratory scene in the room after the close of business on Day Four of IWC 63, as old friends and enemies said goodbye to one another for yet another year, but the International Whaling Commission passed through a watershed in Jersey.  I was so stunned and dismayed that I barely took a photograph, not wanting to reveal in retrospect, even to myself, the gap between what was surface and what was real.

For the whales, there was a brief moment of light, following the hard-won agreement that annual dues of members may henceforth only be paid by bank transfer.  It doesn’t entirely eliminate the rampant corruption Japan has used as a tactic to win its way, as bagmen will still be loose in the room, but it does limit the core opportunity to add new votes year by year until the job (a 3/4 majority) is done.

For Japan and its cronies, there was a total victory that amounted to a putsch.   Virtually everything that happened in the room was dominated or controlled by Japan.  At the outset of the meeting, the new Chair, South Africa’s Commissioner Herman Oosthuizen appeared to be in control, firm and even handed, but it didn’t take long for Japan to tilt the scale.  Following a technical glitch mid morning on Day One, Japan managed to slip into the mix of sympathy for its plight after the recent disasters, a simple request for a change in the agenda, moving “Safety at Sea” from Day Three to the first item on Day Two.  It was a fatal decision by the Chair to agree, because once Japan got hold of the reins of the meeting, it never let go.

“Safety at Sea” is a difficult issue for many pro-whale members.  On the one hand, they understand that Sea Shepherd ships are the single obstacle standing in the way of Japan’s outrageous behaviour in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary.  But on the other, they are obliged to pay at least lip service to Japan’s complaint that it is a victim, rather than the aggressor.  Meeting after meeting, Japan kidnaps the room with its dramatic slides and videos, and easily achieves consensus condemnation of Sea Shepherd tactics.  Some members are brave enough to point out that the IWC is the wrong forum to bring the issue into, that it is powerless to act beyond words, but this does not deflect Japan’s purpose, which is to ensure that it gets its way in the rest of the meeting.

Getting its way was something Japan achieved big time in Jersey.  My pre-meeting thought was that perhaps Japan might use the occasion to consolidate the outpouring of international sympathy and good will it received so freely, following the horrific March 11th earthquake and tsunami, by signaling concessions over the internationally sticky issue of whaling (  I must have been dreaming, as I was immediately proven far from the mark.  Rather than making friends and amends, such as by announcing an end to its “research” whaling in the Antarctic Sanctuary, Japan was ready to pounce.  The device it used was the “Private Commissioners’ Meeting” which takes whatever subject the Chair deems tricky behind closed doors.   About all Japan has to do is get (or rely on) one of its clients, such as tiny St. Kitts & Nevis, to erect a wall of obfuscation and diversion around whatever topic it chooses, and the Chair takes the meeting into a private session, of which there is no official record, and from which only rumours flow, for as long as it takes to reach “consensus”.  There is then a brief open-session announcement and discussion of the result, but it is a fait accompli.

“Consensus” has become a tool wielded effectively and with great precision by Japan and its cohorts at these meetings.  Far from being a means to achieving agreement over divisive issues, it is now a powerful bully weapon, one brandished primarily by Japan, but with the willing consent of surprising others such as the USA and New Zealand, who could formerly be counted on the whales’ side.   In this meeting, they were joined by the new Chair, who at first glance is a fair bloke, but who threatened to end the meeting and resign, if consensus could not be achieved and a vote forced.

The topic in this instance was the proposal of the Buenos Aires Group (BAG) of Latin and Central American members, to create a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary which would adjoin the existing Southern Ocean Sanctuary, providing additional protection for whales, and also open the door to significant research and economic opportunities for coastal communities along its borders.  The proponents have been admirably patient, so far waiting 10 years to achieve their goal, but the mere idea of yet another sanctuary for whales sticks in the craw of Japan and the Nordic whalers, who regard any safe place for whales as a threat to their very existence, and oppose it by whatever means lie at hand.  “Consensus” has become the means of the day.   In its application within the IWC, it has become a farce, a place-holding puppet sitting in the wings waiting for the “future” of this vacant body to unfold, with Japan patiently holding the strings.

Everyone know that Japan is using “consensus” to force its will on the weak-minded, yet virtually no-one objects, and at this meeting, no-one was willing to insist on even a single vote.   Moreover, everyone was willing to toss out a role for “Civil Society”, a given in international fora such as CITES, in the vague hope that this gesture might bring a modicum of good will into the proceedings.  Not a chance.

Such is the state of democracy at the International Whaling Commission.

The moment of truth for this meeting, which revealed Japan’s face in full HD, came when Assistant Commissioner Joji Morishita took the floor at 11:20am on Day Four, ostensibly to speak not for Japan, but on behalf of the “sustainable use” faction.  Clearly, there had been prior discussion of what followed.  Morishita san is noted for his linguistic skills, which he now used first to state that he would need more than 2 minutes to speak to such an “important issue” (no comment from the Chair) and then to praise the spirit of the meeting, which had achieved “wonderful positive outcomes” such as the agreement about Safety at Sea.  It was important to keep building trust, and voting could negatively impact this vital exercise.  Assuring the meeting that he didn’t want to engage in a hostile act, the Assistant Commissioner for Japan then announced that the Sustainable Use Group would break the quorum of the meeting, by leaving the room, if a vote was called for.  A short while later, after several nations pointed out that voting is a normal democratic procedure, i.e. nothing to be afraid of, Brazil & Argentina indicated that they still wanted a vote, and the Chair asked the Secretary to prepare for one.  At that point, reiterating that it was not a hostile act, Japan rose and left the room, accompanied by 21 other members.  It was the Play of the Day.

No-one witnessing this scene, which led directly to the abrupt termination of the meeting 9 hours later, could have had any doubts about Japan’s determination to use any means at hand, legal or not, to impose its will.  The mask was off.

Seeing the good will Japan arrived with lying in tatters on the floor, like some discarded child’s toy, brought a deep sense of sadness to those, like myself, who love and admire Japan in so many ways.  Why are Japan’s leaders not in tune with the world majority on this issue?  It’s beyond me.

Ironically, what happened in Jersey may ultimately prove beneficial to the world’s whales.  Nothing could be clearer than that, despite the good intentions and diligence of some members, the IWC is incapable of resolving even a subset of the issues faced by cetaceans, large and small, and the oceans they inhabit.  It is past time for the IWC to be assigned its proper historical place: a footnote.

Perhaps the best place to begin again is at the United Nations.  The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) certainly has enough scope in its mandate to add protecting cetaceans and their habitats to the long list of issues and problems it already deals with.  As Monaco’s brilliant IWC Commissioner, Frederick Briand, said in a recent address to UNCLOS in New York, calling for protection of all cetaceans in all oceans:

Marine migratory species of cetaceans, all 76 of them, are a major component of the world ocean.  By definition they do not belong to a particular place, and even less to a specific party.  They are our common heritage, vested in the trusteeship of the community of nations, for the benefit of current and future generations.



posted by Paul Spong, July 23, 2011


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