IWC 66 Day One
Ever since the International Whaling Commission moved to biennial meetings, the drama that was played out every year for decades has diminished in intensity, but it is still there. This year’s meeting is in Portoroz, Slovenia, the same venue as last time. Everyone liked it so much they decided to come back. Besides, there were no other offers. It’s mid October, so the balmy Adriatic isn’t quite so inviting, but it is still a comfortable land of palm trees and pizza. Not quite so is the scene inside the Gran Hotel Bernadin, where the delegates sit in rows listening to the to and fro of debate through earphones that offer translation in 4 languages. There are 46 national delegations here, and everyone is looking at the empty Panama chair and counting votes for and against the South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary (SAWS). A vote by Panama for or against could tip the scales one way or the other. A few abstentions could make it a reality. Tomorrow morning, we will know.
The SAWS was first proposed in 2001 by Brazil and Argentina. Establishing it made eminent sense, as it would join two existing sanctuaries, in the Indian Ocean and Southern Oceans, thus ensuring that the entire southern hemisphere was protected. The proposal went down easily, defeated by Japan and its allies. It has come back again and again in the years since, gradually obtaining more support, and depending on who you are talking to, this time it has a good shot at succeeding. The objections of the opponents have been addressed one by one until all that stands in the way is Japan’s obstinacy. The proposal has been reviewed by the Scientific Committee and the Conservation Committee, a management plan has been created, and every range state that is a member of the IWC is a co-sponsor. In the debate today, Japan’s argument sounded hollow. It was basically a refusal to give up the prospect of killing whales sometime in the future, a dim prospect at best, if not impossible. Still, Japan will not let go of its opposition, and its acolytes won’t either.
SAWS is by no means the only big ticket item in this show. Japan is once again on the firing line over its refusal to give up killing whales in the Antarctic. Having declared the International Court of Justice irrelevant and its decision against Japan’s Antarctic whaling meaningless, it went its own merry way last year and killed 335 minke whales in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary. Many members of the Commission were outraged by this blatant refusal to act as a decent world citizen. At the last IWC meeting in 2014, a resolution was passed telling Japan it has to get approval from the Scientific Committee before resuming Antarctic whaling. It did not, and went ahead anyway. The upshot is a new resolution by Australia and New Zealand, telling Japan that it has to have Commission approval first. That’s a much higher barrier, one that is unlikely to be breached. At first glance, it seems like a winning approach to the problem, but given the tricky turf the IWC sits on, it may not. The biggest problem I have with the resolution is that it will give Japan 3 more years of essentially open season in the Antarctic – 2 years before the Commission meets again, and another to act on any decision it might make at that meeting. Many delegates and observers at this meeting think Japan will just go ahead regardless. An alternate view is that the next Antarctic whaling season will be Japan’s last, because Sea Shepherd’s new vessel will be able to outrun the Japanese fleet. Tomorrow, we will know that results of the resolution, which will give us a clue about the outcome of this meeting.
There is already one very positive development. NGOs are being given a greater voice, not quite being able to participate in debates as they please, but allowed to speak to agenda items after delegates have spoken, and without preapproval. The IWC is not yet where other international bodies like CITES have been for ages, but it is getting closer to meaningful civil society participation. That is good news for whales, and good news for those of us who have become accustomed to scurrying around in dark shadows.
By Paul Spong,
October 24, 2016