March 31st 2014 will go down as an historic day for the whaling industry and the anti-whaling movement. On this day, the International Court for Justice (ICJ) will hand down its verdict in the case brought by Australia and New Zealand against Japan over its so-called Research Whaling Program in the Southern Ocean.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. A win for Japan would legitimise its research program and could herald an increase in whaling activities. Further, it would be the green light for other countries such as Russia and Korea to introduce commercial whaling programs of their own under the guise of research.
A win for Australia and New Zealand however would likely see a cessation of all whaling in Antarctica, something many people, myself included, would dearly love to see. Some people are suggesting that if Japan loses, they will simply continue with whaling in any case, however all parties in the trial have agreed they will abide by the ruling. The court has also advised parties that the verdict is binding and there will be no right of appeal. So the stakes in this case are massive. It will see an end to all whaling in Antarctica, or it will boost an industry increasingly despised by many.
The trial became necessary because the International Whaling Commission (IWC) lacks a clear Judicial process and enforcement mechanism. Despite the 1986 ban on commercial whaling, several countries, Norway and Iceland included, have continued to hunt while remaining members of the IWC. They have simply lodged objections to the commercial ban and have continued to whale with impunity. Japan took a different approach, reverting back to an IWC regulation from the 1940s that allowed countries to hunt whale for scientific purposes. Unfortunately no upper-limit on numbers was provided in the regulation, a loophole that Japan has been exploiting for the past 25 years.
In recent times New Zealand and Australia have successfully passed several resolutions (not regulations) defining the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, theoretically banning the killing of all whales there. Japan however claims the original regulation (requiring a 75% of vote to be overturned) takes precedence over any subsequent resolutions (needing only 50% IWC vote to be passed). As a result, Japan has continued to whale while the rest of us could do little to stop them. The IWC has then descended into a dysfunctional family split into two warring factions.
I attended the trial in June last year, andI walked away confident Australia and New Zealand would win their case. In essence, it comes down to the following: “Is Japanese Research Whaling in Antarctica genuine research?” Japan argued it was not the position of Australia nor the ICJ to determine what really constitutes research. As long as there is a research element in their work, and Japan claimed there was, then that is sufficient grounds to class it as research, and therefore legitimise the program.
Australia and New Zealand argued, effectively I believe, that the research program is basically the same as the commercial program it replaced, that the research has little scientific merit, and it is all simply a charade to bypass the ban on commercial whaling.
Judges can only base their verdict on law – Not what is necessarily good for whales, the environment, or even what might be fair. It is simply a matter of answering the question “is the program legitimate research?”
I spoke to a Japanese Journalist at the trial, and he had an interesting perspective. He felt that whaling had become a messy affair for Japan, and that a loss in the court might be a good thing. It would allow them a face-saving exit from Antarctica, rather than being forced out by what they term eco-terrorists. The industry continues to receive tens of millions of dollars each year in subsidies, at a time when the Japanese economy remains on the rocks. Further to this, many in Japan concede it is a dying industry. Consumption of whale meat continues to drop, with those eating it tending to be old men. Young Japanese generally don’t eat whale, and as a result Japan’s stockpile of meat has continued to grow despite reduced annual catches.
It is worth noting here that the case has revolved around only the Antarctica program. If Japan does lose, there is nothing to stop them continuing with their research program in the Northern Pacific. Or they may choose to follow Norway and Iceland’s lead and whale in their own waters while ignoring the 1986 ban on commercial whaling.
Originally I was optimistic about this case. But now I am not so sure. Whatever happens, March 31st 2014 will go down in history. If we will be celebrating or commiserating remains too be seen. Either way, have some alcohol ready!