IWC 2011 Day Three: moving molasses

It has been a very long time since I could end a day at an IWC meeting reporting something positive, apart from the camaraderie that accompanies these annual excursions into the world of real whale politik, as seen through the eyes of the vanishing breed called whalers, and newly minted whale lovers.  For about as long as I can remember, moments in which I felt even a tinge of optimism about the outcome of the decades long struggle to change human perceptions of cetaceans, and alter the course of their destiny, were few and far between.  The last time was 30 years ago, in 1981, when I became so convinced that a moratorium on wholesale whale slaughter (commercial whaling) would come about, that I didn’t feel a need to attend the next year, when that victory was achieved.

In the years since 1997, when I returned to the IWC in a fit of panic, having finally realized that the ‘kill or not to kill’ issue wasn’t over, the tide has been ebbing slowly but surely.  Over the last few years, I’ve become increasingly pessimistic, as the whalers, led by Japan, gathered strength.  Last year, the whales dodged a bullet when they escaped the spectre of the world’s most powerful nations joining hands with some of the smallest, in agreeing that it was time to start the cycle of terror again. Fortunately, more sensible heads prevailed, and the moment passed.

This year, the issue of “Future of the IWC” (meaning how to satisfy the whalers) was pretty much off the table, but remnants of resistance remained.  The agenda included a “future” item, as a place-holder; and a determined band of mostly Caribbean hold outs sat firmly at the table, stalwartly opposing the efforts of the UK and EU to bring the IWC into the 21st century via a simple device aimed at “transparency”.

The device is called a bank transfer.  It is the ordinary means by which funds are moved around the world these days.  At the IWC, the mere mention amounted to an outrage in the eyes of some members, who have been accustomed to depositing large amounts of cash into the hands of the Secretariat in exchange for the right to vote.

Though the source of these funds was unknown (Japan is the Prime Suspect) the result has been that dozens of new votes on the whalers’ side have come into IWC meetings over the past decade or so.  And in more recent years, efforts to achieve “consensus” have ended in one stalemate after another.  The losers in this scenario have been whales, increasing numbers of whom have been killed annually, at no consequence for the killers.

Last year, after the failure of the “future” initiative, led by the USA and New Zealand, serious thought was given to ways in which the IWC could be reformed, to bring its procedures into the 21st century, and shine the light of “openness” into its murky corners.   During the past year, the Finance and Administration Committee has been drafting changes to the Rules of Procedure aimed at accomplishing this.  Lo and behold, one of its recommendations was that annual dues should be paid by transfer of funds between a bank account of a member government and the IWC account.  The European Union made the proposal initially, but when Denmark objected, the UK took it on.  Eventually, the EU members joined hands and the proposal moved forward in their joint name (see yesterday’s story).  Unfortunately, moments after the proposal was introduced by Poland, St. Kitts and Nevis raised a Point of Order, and the rest of the day was lost.

Today, the morning was lost in the same manner, and when coffee breaks turned into Private Commissioners’ meetings, much of the afternoon was consumed as well.  Sitting on the sidelines, it was impossible to avoid the impression that the only way out of the deadlock was to hold the first vote since 2007.  Many in the audience were looking forward to having a vote at last, as a way forward.  Time dragged on, as the private meeting, promised as taking up to an hour, dragged into more than two.  Eventually, at nearly 5:30pm, the meeting resumed, and it became apparent that via some wizardry, consensus had been achieved.  The UK, as the chief defender of the rule change was satisfied, and New Zealand got heaped with praise for its success in bringing the sides together, or at least close enough to agree.

Henceforth from now, payment of IWC dues will be by bank transfer only.   The IWC, having hit rock bottom, can now begin the journey of saving the whales all over again.

Yes, it can.

posted by Paul Spong

July 13, 2011




Listen now

Stream our live hydrophone audio