IWC 60 day four: the war zone – June 26th 2008

It wasn’t difficult to discern by the end of yesterday that the fragile truce engineered by Chairman Hogarth was breaking down. This morning it shattered. The precipitating cause was Denmark’s request on behalf of Greenland to add 10 humpbacks per year, for the next 5 years, to its long list of large and small whales killed for “aboriginal subsistence” purposes. I’ve put quotes around the term because large question marks surround Greenland’s whaling. It turns out to have a heavy commercial element to it, with some whales being handed over whole to a private processing company for dismembering and sale to supermarkets throughout Greenland. The hunters apparently get very little benefit from the sales, around 22% of the retail price, so there is incentive for them to make more money by killing more whales. It seems clear that there is an economic as well as a food supply factor involved in Denmark’s request, so it isn’t surprising that many nations were offended by its unpleasant odour.

By late last night it seemed quite possible that Denmark would withdraw its humpback request in the interests of harmony. But this morning, after a Commissioners-only meeting that took the first 2 hours of the day, all it came back with was “horsetrading” in the form of an offer to kill fewer fin whales if it got the humpbacks it wanted. If there was no consensus, Denmark would insist on a vote. Virtually no one on the conservation side was buying the offer, which came with an implied threat (wrecking the party). It was actually quite puzzling to understand, as everyone including Denmark knew that pressing for a vote on the issue would open the can of worms Chairman Hogarth was intent on keeping closed, and that the negotiations he envisages happening over the next year would become far more difficult.

When the issue was opened for discussion, Slovenia spoke first, representing the EU, and stated, to no-one’s surprise, that EU members would oppose the request. Chairman Hogarth expressed disappointment that things were coming to this point, after having had such success in working with consensus. And then the fists started flying. Russia jumped in with a point of order about procedure and then leapt back into the Middle Ages, equating the EU’s opposition to mob rule, and saying there was no point to having a Scientific Committee if things were to be decided in this way. St. Kitts followed with the charge that this was an attempt by a small group of nations, trying to be world leaders, who were denying marginal people the right to eat though a “blatant act of aggression”. Things deteriorated from there, with Korea accusing the EU of interfering with the legitimate processes of the IWC, and violating humanitarian law. Quite clearly, Korea was upset, so the low key comments of the UK came as a bit of a break. Why, the UK wondered, were they holding private Commissioners’ meetings if they were just going to go through it all again? Contrary to common belief, the UK explained, EU members did not come with a predetermined position, just agreement that they would vote together. Determining their joint position took a lot of effort, including a last minute meeting this morning. Sadly, the UK said, there was no choice but to break consensus. The comments flowed back and forth, one bloc and then the other. Switzerland, striving for neutrality, said it would abstain. Japan, expressing “sadness, pain, and above all anger”, said it felt like going back to one year ago, in Anchorage; and Antigua & Barbuda, seeing the future, said it wanted to be the first to offer the Chair condolences on the demise of his proposal. Not long after, as the meeting broke for lunch, there was little left by way of suspense about the outcome.

When the vote came, Greenland’s request fell far short of a simple majority, let alone the ¾ majority it required to succeed. Denmark acknowledged it would comply, but bring the issue back again next year.

The remainder of the day went quickly, with a lovely interlude offered by Brazil in the form of a video extolling the virtues of a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary as a substitute for serious debate and a vote on the issue. The decision of the proponents of the Sanctuary proposal was applauded by many speakers, even opponents, as it was clear they were complying with the wishes of the Chair to retain consensus. Predictably, the foes lined up on either side once again, though after the humpback slug fest, there wasn’t much energy left to expend. Russia brought the house down again by offering its congratulations to Spain, who were thrashing Russia 2-0 at the time, before going on to insult Brazil.

Not long later, after yet another coffee break, almost all the remaining items on the agenda were quickly dispatched, including (surprisingly) the issue of safety at sea, which had been left open a couple of days ago. It was widely expected, after a round of strong statements, that the meeting would pass a resolution condemning Sea Shepherd for its anti-whaling tactics in the Antarctic. It wasn’t explained, but the matter was quietly dropped and no-one objected. Perhaps it had something to do with Paul Watson’s presence in the conference hotel, though not in the meeting. It seems that a computer glitch at the airport facilitated Paul’s entry into Chile when he arrived. He and his supporters have been a visible presence around the meeting all week.

There was no celebrating, or crying at the end of this day, just a déjà-vu feeling that the wheels had fallen off the wagon. They have.

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