The sound of silence



IWC 2014 Day Two

Day Two of IWC 65 began with a downsweep, quite possibly because last night’s reception, hosted by the government of Slovenia was long and indulgent, great fun but with consequences that crept into the room this morning.  Thought seemed slower, and after the ASW (Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling) agenda item was tidied and put to bed, somewhat vacant.  The first clue came when the Chair opened the subject of reviewing the Southern Ocean Sanctuary, a process that is supposed to happen every 10 years.  The last review was in 2004, so it is time for another.  Silence descended.  Not one comment was forthcoming, causing the Chair to remark “I know it’s early morning but I can’t make decisions on my own.”  Eventually, the Chair did nudge some expressions of support for an Australian proposal, but it was hard slogging.   Two NGO interventions regarding the proposed South Atlantic Sanctuary (pro and con) followed, signaling the Chair’s intention to allow more civil society participation than hitherto.  This small step may have large consequences down the line, as the IWC edges towards normalcy as an international organisation.

A potentially large step in this direction came with Monaco’s presentation of its resolution on migratory species of cetaceans.  This was first introduced in Panama two years ago but withdrawn because of evident lack of support.  Like Greenland, Monaco did its homework in the intervening time and came back with a powerful presentation, pointing out that drastic changes have occurred in the world of whales, with more coming  The fact is that many times the number of cetaceans covered by the IWC are roaming the oceans, entirely without protection and increasingly facing environmental threats – marine debris, noise, entanglement, ship collisions, climate change to name a few.  Other organizations such as the Convention on Biodiversity are working on some of the problems, and it is time for the IWC to ally with them. Monaco’s dream is that the IWC will become a key player in the monitoring of all pelagic cetacean species, thus moving into an arena of international governance it has been reluctant to enter.  A lot of what Monaco was talking about has to do with small cetaceans, so naturally there was pushback. Norway led the resistance by stating that many species of small cetaceans are not migratory; Monaco later refuted this claim.  Japan backed Norway up by stating that small cetaceans are beyond the competence of the IWC and rather, a regional responsibility.  Led by the EU, the room didn’t buy the con arguments, and when Monaco’s resolution came to a vote, it easily surpassed the 50% bar. In a sense, the IWC has now come of age, because it will increasingly participate in international fora.  Thanks to Monaco, it will come as no surprise if whales are being discussed at the United Nations within a few years.

The trickiest part of Day Two came with the introduction of New Zealand’s resolution on whaling under special permit (“scientific” whaling).  The Chair immediately admonished the room by stating that she did not want debate on the decision of the International Court of Justice at this point, but simply wanted New Zealand to introduce its resolution, with the debate following tomorrow morning.  New Zealand did its best to comply, but was soon distracted by comments from Norway and Japan, who clearly don’t want the Court’s decision to change anything at the IWC.  Eventually, New Zealand announced that it would hold a round table discussion at 6pm, to which all delegations who wanted to review its resolution were invited.  Mid afternoon, that suggestion morphed into an end to the day’s open business, and the meeting adjourned to New Zealand’s round table.  We will learn the outcome tomorrow.

Two other notes from Day Two.  One further explains the title to this story.

Following the discussion on New Zealand’s resolution, the Chair moved to the agenda item Future of the IWC.  There were no comments, provoking an “apparently the IWC has no future” response from her that drew laughter.  Then she moved on to Agenda Item 9, Status of Whale Stocks.  Beginning with the Scientific Committee’s report on Antarctic minke whales, then moving on to Southern Hemisphere humpback whales, Southern Hemisphere blue whales, Southern Hemisphere right whales, Western North Pacific gray whales, and others, her invitations for comment drew only blanks.  Pausing in the silence after each species was named, she said “we extend our thanks to the Scientific Committee for their work.”  At one point she said “silence is golden”.  Then a little later after more blanks “I shall just ask the rapporteurs to duplicate my statement”.  I suppose one could be amused.

On a more positive track, the work of the Conservation Committee is increasingly gaining stature and recognition, such that its role is now secure.  Its mandate includes work on a broad range of topics, from entanglement and marine debris, to noise, pollution, ship strikes and climate change.  For the most part, the work is exciting and brings hope for the future of cetaceans.  Clearly, the iWC is assuming a leading role in dealing with the broad range of urgent problems faced by cetaceans.

There is a down side to the Conservation Committee’s work, however, as it is also responsible for welfare issues.  This brings it directly into the zone of killing whales, from euthanasia to choices of weapons.  Today’s discussion was long and tedious, highlighted by Norway and Japan’s continued refusal to provide data regarding time to death to the IWC.  Japan’s delegate bluntly stated his fear that such information could be used against whaling by people who love whales.  He’s right, of course, but imagination in the absence of knowledge can be a powerful tool too.

by Paul Spong


September 16, 2014

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