IWC 60 wrapup: back to the future – July 4th 2008

More than 500 people from 76 countries attended the 60th annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in Santiago, Chile.  Of these, 316 were members of delegations, 161 were observers and 103 were media representatives. As a planet burning exercise (in accumulating air miles) it was no doubt a great success, but as a means to an end (saving or killing whales) it must be recorded as ephemeral at best.    

The Chairman’s theme was peace and harmony at last, to be achieved through sincere effort on all (both) sides during negotiations to be carried out over the next 12 months, with a view to settling the main issues and thereby simultaneously providing comfort to foe and friend.  It reflected a seemingly worthwhile ambition, i.e. to fix a broken instrument and turn it into a useful tool.  The subtext here is to give Japan what it wants (read, what whalers want) and give pro-whale advocates what they want.  In practice, this could mean giving Japan the right to kill whales in its nearby waters, thereby satisfying or at least calming the ardent nationalists who are driving the government’s agenda; and on the pro-whale side it could mean creating a whaling-free southern hemisphere, thereby satisfying the most ardent whale advocates, i.e. Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and the whales’ other Latin lovers.  We will have to wait a bit to see whether Dr. Hogarth’s vision is mere fantasy or something tangible. My guess (bet) is that it is rather like morning mist that comes with the rising sun… so often, and so disappointingly, it turns what promises to be a glorious day into a murky haze that lasts until night falls (again).

Lurking behind the congratulatory and appreciative remarks directed at the Chair for playing Saviour-at-last, the hard edges remained.  Despite apparently genuine attempts from both sides, achieving consensus in this meeting turned out to be impossible, and it took very little to turn politeness into rowdyism.  “Very little” is perhaps an unfair term, as saving the lives of the 10 humpback whales who will survive this year is no small matter – either to the individuals who will continue their lives in the wondrous manner of their kind, or to a humpback population which is still recovering from care-less plundering.  Reading the face of one NGO who expressed joy at having saved the lives of real whales, I knew that this contest of wills is not going to be resolved easily, or soon.  To those who know whales for what they truly are (advanced, sentient beings) there is no question as to where the future of the relationship between our species and theirs lies.  Knowing truth with such certainty lends passion, grit and endurance to whale-savers, one might almost say, unstoppable energy.  To them there is no alternative – the contest will go on, until the point is won.      

The unfortunate reality of this forum is that no-one really wants the fight to continue – hence Chairman Hogarth’s search for a way out, and hence the absence of an offer to host the 2010 meeting. There is widespread acknowledgement that the whaling issue divides and distracts potential allies on another, vastly more urgent front: global warming.  Japan and Europe are already agreed in their determination to fight climate change, and there is every reason to believe that the US will join them after the coming Presidential election. This single issue clearly trumps every other on our planet’s agenda.  If “we” do not find a way to deal with itnow there will be no agreeable future, for the whales or for our grandchildren and their progeny.  They will inherit a bleak world from us, and it will take millennia or even eons to restore the gift we inherited.  The only possible way out or forward is for everyone (all governments) to work together in the common cause that now binds us.  Our response will seal humanity’s fate.  The most unfortunate aspect of the whaling issue is that it creates a significant impediment to working effectively in this common cause.  My conviction, and it was agreed to by everyone I spoke with (pro and anti whatever) at this IWC 60 meeting, is that the whaling issue must be set aside (if not resolved) so that everyone in the IWC room can truly work together to address the only problem that must be solved, if humanity is to have a viable future.  The choice is ours.

As a footnote, at the airport on my way out of Santiago, I had a chance to look at the verbatim transcript of the meeting which set up the IWC in 1946.  It was clear that this was an attempt by the whalers’ allies to arrange the future in an agreeable way (to them).  Interestingly though, it was also apparent that the International Whaling Commission was originally created as a temporary expedient to protect whales in lieu of the unformed character and yet to be determined mandate of the United Nations.  Had the IWC been from the outset an organ of the UN, we would be seeing a very different tune played today.

By the time the next meeting of this club rolls around, in Portugal’s island paradise of Madeira in June ‘09, we will know more about what the future holds for this fractured body, the whales, and ourselves.  We can only hope that in the time between, a way can be found to set the whaling issue aside so that the international community can get on with what must be done, and can only be done together.  Failing this test, we will find ourselves back in an IWC future we unfortunately know all too well.     

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