For the past five years I’ve been involved with a fairly large group of NGOs and governments that sought to find a negotiated solution to the long standing political impasse at the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Although there has been a moratorium on commercial whaling since 1986 and the Southern Ocean was declared a whale sanctuary in 1994, the Government of Japan has been adamant that it had the right under the IWC constitution to continue to kill whales under the guise of scientific research. A costly and time-consuming so-called “whale peace process” took place for three years under the aegis of the IWC, until it broke down at last year’s IWC annual meeting held in Agadir, Morocco.
The “whale peace process” had been established in response to pledges by the Fisheries Agency of Japan that it needed political space to save face, because according to them part of the problem was what they described as an over-simplified and unfair representation of the whaling issue in the Western world. The whale peace process did not bear fruit because consensus was difficult among governments and NGOs alike. But it served to reach out – both formally and informally – to higher levels within the Japanese Government, beyond the Fisheries Agency whose officials have been suspected for a long time of having conflicts of interest. Members of the Cabinet of the last four Japanese Prime Ministers became involved, but they seemed to maintain a line that was not very different from the Fisheries Agency’s: over-simplification of the whaling issue was not helpful and anti-whaling sentiments expressed in the West were often counter-productive because they were perceived as humiliating or even racist, when instead the international community should help the Government of Japan find a face-saving solution, they said. As was recently made public in documents released by Wikileaks, one condition Japan has reiterated time and time again was that a broad international condemnation of the tactics used by the Sea Shepherd activist group was necessary to help Japan move in the right direction because they could not afford being seen to be giving in to a group which they’ve repeatedly described as a terrorist organization. In the last several years, at every meeting of the IWC, Japan has introduced an agenda item called “safety at sea” which generally takes an entire afternoon of the Commission’s work during which they describe (with video footage and power point presentations) what they consider to be Sea Shepherd violence against their ships and crews, in violation of international rules of good seamanship. And in response each time, virtually every single State member of the IWC has responded publically by condemning the Sea Shepherd, and IWC resolutions calling on governments to act against Sea Shepherd were adopted unanimously, in the hope that this would contribute to an enabling environment at the IWC. With this background in mind, the Japanese Government announcement that it was recalling its whaling fleet from the Southern Ocean because of Sea Shepherd is puzzling, even though it was followed by a request from Japan’s Foreign Affairs Minister to the Governments of Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands to cut any link with that organization.
Of course it is well known that the whaling industry is in bad economic shape. Japanese people have lost their taste for whale meat and there is currently a stockpile of frozen whale meat which is estimated at 6000 tonnes, an historic high. For this reason, when the fleet departed in December, Greenpeace-Japan had already predicted that the whaling season would be shortened. With shrinking whale meat sales, the State-owned Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) which conducts the “scientific” hunt does not manage to cover its operating costs; it’s been reported that the ICR recently asked the government to donate more public money in support of their operation. This, as well as the considerable cost of a Japanese Government campaign to support the membership of a myriad of countries in the IWC via funds from its Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other sources, is likely to be seen as offensive by the Treasury in a time of economic hardship in Japan.
But if it was seriously considering ending its operation, why did the Japanese Government take an approach this week which is so much at odds with the save-face requirement they were asking for until now? Why didn’t they make a well planned voluntary announcement, for example last year when the World Biodiversity Conference took place in Nagoya, Japan only a few weeks before the departure of the whaling fleet to the Southern Ocean? Everyone would have applauded them then, and not Sea Shepherd. Rather than face-saving what they’ve done looks like whaling hara-kiri. Even if it is still early to say that the early return of the fleet this season means that the whaling interests are defeated for good, the credibility of Japan’s whaling strategy is now very seriously undermined. It will be harder for example for Japan to continue to canvas support from small developing countries at the IWC, even if it wants to. One plausible explanation is that in the context of Japanese domestic whaling policy driven by a strong pro-whaling lobby of parliamentarians many of which are members of the opposition party, blaming Sea Shepherd is a face-saving strategy for the government.
Another question is whether the shock wave of the U-turn of the whaling fleet will be restricted to the whale conservation issue, or whether it will have implications beyond whaling. What message does it send to NGOs campaigning for the protection of, for example, bluefin tuna, sharks and other marine species? Is it an invitation to muscle up their action, stop dialogue and prioritize "direct action" instead as Sea Shepherd has been doing for years? In the context of climate change also, activists are discussing the role of civil disobedience. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were inspired by this week’s unexpected development in the Southern Ocean.
This blogpiece is also available in español, HERE (AQUÍ) on the website of the Spanish news agency EFE