Judgment day for whaling?

Judgment day for whaling?

Australia achieves an unexpected victory against Japan’s ‘research’ whaling program, writes TREVOR WILSON.

The International Court of Justice’s 31 March decision against Japan’s much-maligned research whaling program was unexpected, but vindicates the Rudd government’s at-the-time risky decision to launch a case against Japan in the ICJ.

The decision was unexpected because most of the arguments cited by Australia and accepted by the court had been aired previously, but unsuccessfully, in the International Whaling Commission (IWC); and it was unexpected because Japan had always been careful to shroud its whaling activities in a cloak of legitimacy. Although the Japanese government expressed its ‘disappointment’ at the decision, it publicly confirmed that it would abide by the ICJ verdict. However, it was clearly in a state of shock.

It is not clear what changed to bring about this ICJ decision. Australia had long complained about the lack of worthwhile research from the Japanese scientific program and its over-emphasis on lethal methods for its research. But in recent years, even the amount of this poor quality research declined, for whatever reasons. In parallel with this, in recent years Japan also experienced increasing problems funding its research program and the massive subsidies it required. In addition to this, vigorous protests by the Sea Shepherd campaigners significantly disrupted Japan’s Southern Ocean research program in both 2011 and 2012.

However, the case to support Japan’s long-distance whaling program in the Southern Ocean was never strong. There was never any convincing need for such a program, neither in terms of whale products (which are no longer precious or popular in Japan) nor in terms of science. Indeed, Japan’s 1987 decision to commence its research whaling Tokyo Twop program was always little more than a crude substitute for commercial whaling, which had been banned the previous year under an IWC moratorium. While the Japanese government always loyally supported the Japanese whaling industry’s attempts to retain a pelagic whaling capability, the full political, diplomatic and financial costs of doing this were rarely discussed or publicly debated in Japan. Indeed, the Japanese government could not really claim its policy enjoyed the kind of popular support the anti-whaling cause enjoyed in Australia!

Both the Australian and Japanese governments had always managed to insulate their differences on the whaling issue from the rest of their bilateral interests. Moreover, any understandings between Australia and Japan on whaling have long been conducted under the auspices of multilateral institutions which possess the formal international responsibility to regulate whaling as an international activity largely carried out on the high seas. Good relations are important for both Japan and Australia. The two countries have agreements on the majority of issues, but whaling is not one of them; bilateral agreements on whaling would have been unnecessary and superfluous. Whatever disagreements existed at any time between Australia and Japan on whaling have been worked through quite effectively in the key bodies, such as the IWC, for many decades.

Australian attitudes to whaling

Australian political leaders understood very well the extent to which the Australian people supported strong environmental protection policies. In addition, environmental lobby groups are politically powerful in Australia, are exceptionally skilled at and even ruthless in lobbying for their causes such as stopping whaling, and enjoy very considerable popular political support. Whaling is even an important topic during elections in Australia, although this is rare around the world. One political party, the Greens, stands mainly for environmental causes, although they have only a small number of parliamentary seats.

Australian environmental lobby groups are also well connected with international environmental protection groups, including those in Japan. Indeed, Japan also has an active environmental movement whose leaders are as dedicated and committed as environmental activists anywhere; thus, the Greenpeace ‘Tokyo Two’ were jailed for their protests against whaling. But environmental groups in Japan just don’t wield the same political impact as their Australian counterparts.

In Japan, whaling is more an economic and cultural issue, rather than an environmental or resource depletion issue. But even the domestic economic interests in Japan’s whaling sector are relatively small and confined to a few relatively remote areas. As far as Japanese public opinion is concerned, polls have consistently shown that the Japanese people are not especially interested in the government’s support for whaling. Politically, for the Japanese government—including their political agriculture protection cabals, their fisheries bureaucrats, and the government-dominated media—continuing whaling was, and is, a matter of cultural pride and, they believe, their cultural traditions. They see the western agenda of protecting whales (more than most other species) as a form of cultural imperialism as well as an emotional overreaction and neither objective nor scientific.

Given the unequivocal language of the ICJ decision, it is unlikely that the IWC would be disposed to approve a modified Japanese scientific whaling proposal.

Nevertheless, on whaling as on some other issues, Japan has sought to act in accordance with international law or as a party to international institutions. Japan is unlikely to diverge from this course of action, despite some suggestions it might withdraw from the IWC on the grounds that it is no longer functioning effectively. Were Japan to withdraw from the IWC and/or the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, its action could significantly undermine both, as institutions. Japan could be accused of being a wrecker of international institutions if it did this.

Given the unequivocal language of the ICJ decision, it is unlikely that the IWC would be disposed to approve a modified Japanese scientific whaling proposal, even if a revised proposal sought to address the criticisms of the now banned Japanese program.

On the other hand, Japan can continue its other, much smaller, whaling programs quite legally—its low-level North-Pacific whaling and its ‘indigenous’ whaling—both of which are conducted outside the IWC but are consistent with its procedures, especially in not being on a commercial scale. This would mean Japan would not cease whaling altogether as a result of the recent ICJ decision, but would continue to take whales alongside the other whaling nations such as Norway, Canada and Iceland. These Japanese programs are more aligned with Japan’s real interests, and their continuation should arouse little opposition, internationally or at home.

Two Antarctic minke whales (Wikipedia Commons).

Trevor Wilson is a visiting fellow in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University.

Share On: