May there be Light: IWC 2011 opening thoughts

May there be Light: IWC 2011 opening thoughts

Our work with whales ranges from the joyous to the patient to the intolerable.  The latter, intolerable, is a comment about numerous violations of fairness and reason on our blue planet, but here in particular about the International Whaling Commission (IWC) which was established in 1946 as an instrument to protect the interests of an already faltering whaling industry, but had enough slack in its mandate to also protect the interests of whales, should there be a desire to do so.

The achievement of an indefinite moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982, implemented in 1986, came as a beacon of hope for whales, and for all life on Earth.  It was truly a sign that things really could change for the better, even at the brink. Such good news is desperately needed today.

In 1972, at the first United Nations conference on the environment, whales were chosen as a symbol of a looming crisis, which now stares us in full face.  Whether we are able to surmount, and survive, depends largely on the decisions of small numbers of people, those with power.  The IWC has no real power – flagrant abuses without penalty prove this – but just the same it does have potential.  Whether or not it will be able to achieve that potential, or take steps towards it, is very much the subject of the four day meeting that will take place in Jersey July 11-14.

On the table will be a document tendered by the UK that proposes small changes to IWC procedures, which if agreed could radically alter the way the Commission conducts its business, and affect its outcomes, for the good.  One of the changes is about the way annual dues are paid by member states.  The UK suggests this be by bank transfer, as happens with most ordinary commerce these days.   The word “corruption” is never used or hinted at, but this simple change would go a long way towards ending the days when delegates could walk into the Secretariat moments before the meeting began and exchange a bundle of cash for the right to sit at the table, and vote.  Eliminating this possibility would be a small but definitely healthy step.   We should not count on it being agreed, however.

The UK proposal was originally a proposal from the 23 members of the European Union who are also members of the IWC, but it was vetoed by Denmark and could not be presented as an EU initiative.  Possibly, Denmark’s refusal is unsurprising, given that nation’s sorry record on whales, but it was shocking nonetheless, carrying as it did the clear message that Denmark condones and encourages corruption in international fora.  One has to wonder what the Danish public would make of this, were it to know what it’s government’s representatives are doing?

Voting is what the 89 member Commission is all about, and serious decisions require a ¾ majority.  Hence the efforts of Japan, over many years, to encourage new members, usually small and poor nations, to join and support its views, in exchange for aid; for the delegates, this also means trips abroad and access to a lifestyle beyond the means and dreams of their fellow countryfolk.  Hence also, the efforts of whale-friendly nations to bring other like minded allies into the fray.  The result has been a virtual impasse at the IWC with almost even voting strength on either side of the ‘to kill or not to kill’ debate.

In recent years, successive Chairs of the Commission have attempted “consensus” decision making as a way around the voting roadblock, in the vain hope that there might be enough common ground among the sides, and enough willingness to bend or break the principles on which they stand.   Hence the strange spectacle of the US and New Zealand joining hands with Japan at last year’s meeting, and quite possibly again this year.  Apparently, a joint US-NZ proposal aimed in this direction is being re-written at this moment, so we will have to wait to see the substance of these wheels within wheels.

Meanwhile, the rumor mill is buzzing, one of the most tantalizing bits being that numerous member states, mostly on the whalers’ side, have not yet paid their dues, so are not yet entitled to vote.  Given the turmoil and trauma Japan is still reeling from, after being battered by the triple disasters of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear radiation, it would not be surprising if Japan’s purse strings are tighter than usual at this meeting, and its ability to support its acolytes lessened.   If this is the case, the outcome of this meeting may be less predictable than usual.

Japan’s role in this meeting is obviously crucial to the outcome, and there is cause for hope that it may be more flexible than usual.  The terrible events of the recent past have created a surge of sympathy for Japan around the world, a tide of opinion akin to that experienced by the US after the 9/11 terror attacks.  We all know what happened to that good will.  It would be so sad if Japan were to squander the opportunity it now has, to step into the future with real allies on all sides.  Given the murky history of the IWC, perhaps this thought is unwarranted optimism, but perhaps not.

May there be light!

by Paul Spong, July 8 2011

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