The International Politics of Whaling: Recent Developments


Whales, large, mysterious, intelligent, and endangered. Has any mammal inspired such romantic images of the sea and love for nature as much as the whale, yet aroused such controversy in global environmental conservation? King of the Seas, symbol of the environmental movement, meat and oil for commercial whaling. Over the years, large-scale commercial whaling has depleted a number of whale populations to a significant extent, resulting in the International Whaling Commission (IWC) issuing a moratorium on whaling in 1986. Some recent developments will illustrate the highly controversial nature of whaling.

The moratorium advocates a ban on whale hunting but tolerates indigenous and scientific hunting. World-wide attitudes toward whaling shifted gradually from economic necessity and widespread acceptance to moral censure. The current debate centres on the appropriateness of this global ban. Strong opposition is given by communities in Japan, Norway and Iceland, three countries still supporting whaling. The reputed recovery of some whale populations has been put forward as their argument for resuming limited commercial whaling. Some recent developments will illustrate the highly controversial nature of whaling.

Annual Meeting of the International Whaling Commission

From 22 to 25 June, delegates from 88 countries attended the 62nd Annual Meeting of the IWC in Agadir, Morocco. In order to try and smooth over the differences, a proposal for a compromise was formulated aimed to authorise hunting, which would strictly be controlled by the definition of quotas for a ten-year period. Japan, which, under the guise of scientific hunting, kills close to 1,000 whales per annum, offered concessions on its quotas and agreed to the international monitoring of its activities, including onboard its vessels, but it refuses to give up hunting on the high seas, in particular in the waters of the Southern Ocean, where the IWC established a whale sanctuary in 1994. However, for a number of countries hostile to hunting, this proposal, even with declining quotas, would have legitimised an infringement of the moratorium. And so, the Conference closed without a consensus, thus implicitly confirming the current status quo. 

The only tangible decision, adopted by consensus on 25 June, was to grant a quota of 27 humpback whales over three years to Greenland's Inuit People. Represented by Denmark, the Inuit defended their right to manage marine resources on their territory, while referring to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. To obtain the green light from the IWC and break the deadlock, the European Union suggested a compromise to Denmark: reducing fin whale catches from ten to nine in exchange for humpback whales. Greenland is also entitled to 212 small fin whales. The agreement will be valid until 2012, when quotas will be re-examined. No longer taking into account the IWC, Iceland and Norway will continue commercial whale hunting in their territorial waters on the basis of national, unilaterally-established quotas. That being so, whale hunting will be one of the hot topics in negotiations for Iceland’s accession to the European Union once the environment chapter is opened. The subject is weighing down the situation with negotiations already predicted to be very difficult on financial services and fishing.

Whaling before the International Court of Justice

Three weeks earlier to the IWC's 62nd Annual Meeting, Australia instituted proceedings against Japan before the International Court of Justice for alleged breach of international obligations concerning whaling. Australian Environment Minister Peter Garrett and Attorney General Robert McClelland said in a joint statement that the move underlines their commitment to bring an end to Japan's program of so-called scientific whaling. In its Application of 31 May 2010 Australia stated that Japan has breached and is continuing to breach its obligations under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling by its continued pursuit of a large scale programme of whaling under its Whale Research Programme (JARPA II) in the Southern Ocean. Australia points out that, having regard to the scale of the JARPA II Programme, the lack of any demonstrated relevance for the conservation and management of whale stocks, and to the risks presented to targeted species and stocks, the Programme cannot be justified under article VIII ICRW, which regulates the granting of special permits to kill, take and treat whales for purposes of scientific research. Australia alleges further that Japan has acted in violation of its obligations under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said the two countries have agreed to treat the matter as an independent legal arbitration of a disagreement between friends.

Whaling on Trial : the 'Tokyo Two'

Meanwhile in Japan, Greenpeace activists Toru Suzuki and Junichi Sato have been facing trial for nearly two years for alleged theft and trespass. They face up to ten years in prison. Having exposed a scandal involving government corruption entrenched within the tax-payer funded whaling industry, the trial attracts international attention. A working group of the United Nations Human Rights Council has already ruled out that, in the defendants' attempts to expose the scandal in the public interest, their human rights have been violated by the Japanese Government.