Monday, June 19, 2006

Harpooning a dinosaur

Immediately after the adoption of a so-called St Kitts Declaration at the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) this afternoon, the main spokesman of the Japanese delegation said it was "a historic day."

In the two operative paragraphs of the resolution, the thirty-three countries that voted in favour:

* [...] express[...] concern that the IWC has failed to meet its obligations under the terms of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW), and

* Declar[e][...] commitment to normalizing the functions of the IWC based on the terms of the ICRW and other relevant international law, respect for cultural diversity and traditions of coastal peoples and the fundamental principles of sustainable use of resources, and the need for science-based policy and rulemaking that are accepted as the world standard for the management of marine resources.

Commentators in the press and elsewhere are saying that the end of the moratorium on commercial whaling is now one step closer.

But this may or may not be true:

First, the adoption of this resolution by 33 Yeses, 32 Nos and 1 abstention does not resolve the traditional divide within the IWC. It is even likely to deepen it (and, remember, to eliminate the moratorium the pro-whalers would need a three-quarters majority in accordance with the rules of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling). [Several countries are also on record questioning the legality of the vote for various procedural issues.]

Second, and more importantly, it is possible that this resolution could have a boomerang effect against the pro-whaling interests. It could trigger a wake up call for opinion- and policy-makers (and for the wider public as a result.) [For how long had the IWC not made the front page of the world press?]

The amazingly aggresive language in the resolution, and the unusually undiplomatic words used on the floor by delegations that sponsored the Draft Declaration will maybe ring the alarm bells in the capitals of the countries that have traditionally opposed commercial whaling in the last thirty years.

It could also change the political landscape in many of the countries who are supporting the resumption of commercial whaling. According to public opinion polls commissioned by the WWF in pro-whaling countries, the public opinion in these countries does not support the position of their respective governments on this issue. Now that these governments have helped effectively Japan to win its first victory in 24 years (now that the threat of a resumption of commercial whaling is less hypothetical), it is likely that there will be more public scrutiny in these countries. People will look more closely at what is behind the interest in whaling of the elites of these countries. We hear them say that they have been convinced by Japan that whales are going to eat all the fish. But according to Transparency International, the NGO that fights corruption and bribery, there may be other reasons.

The preambular language of the resolution also:

* Accept[s] that scientific research has shown that whales consume huge quantities of fish making the issue a matter of food security for coastal nations and requiring that the issue of management of whale stocks must be considered in a broader context of ecosysem management since eco-system management has now become an international standard;

[This is what the whale conservation community calls the whalers's "whales-eat-fish" argument, which is based on junk science; isn't it ironic that countries known for being largely responsible for the collapse of world fisheries resources such as Japan, Russia, or Korea are blaming the remaining whales instead of getting their acts together? And isn't it sad that a country like Mali puts "whales-eat-fish" on top of their domestic food security agenda?]

* Reject[s] as unacceptable that a number of international NGOs with self-interest campaigns should use threats in an attempt to direct government policy on matters of sovereign rights related to the use of resources for food security and national development;

[The issue of Greenpeace's observer status, with Japan's proposal to expell them from the IWC for their "interference with whale research" last year in the Antarctic will come up tomorrow.]

* Not[es] that the position of some members that are opposed to the resumption of commercial whaling on a sustainable basis irrespective of the status of whale stocks is contrary to the object and purpose of the ICRW.

[There was an interesting and lively discussion yesterday, around Japan's paper on "normalization" of the IWC vs. a Dutch paper calling for a ministerial conference to "modernize" the IWC, including addressing the issue of compliance, unilateral "scientific catch" permits and a deadlocked Revised Management Scheme. No decision was taken on any of these proposals this year.]

This afternoon's adoption of the StKitts Declaration is certainly a coup for Japan. But maybe only in the short term.

No-one should lose sight of the fact that in the previous two days and a half, Japan lost four other votes that were crucial for their whaling interests. Japan's proposals to exclude consideration of scientific recommendations regarding small cetaceans, to institute secret ballots, and to eliminate the Southern Ocean Sanctuary, as well as their request for a catch limit of 150 minke whales in the North Pacific, were all rejected. What made the difference this evening with the StKitts Declaration proposal was the support of Denmark and the late arrival of Senegal today, one of the countries said to be "bought" by Japan.

It is the first time in twenty years that I attend, this week, a meeting of the IWC.

I had been warned in advance that IWC meetings nowadays are in many respects much more chaotic than in the 1970s and the 1980s, when I used to attend them. But the chaos and dysfunctionality are much worst than I had expected.

I attend meetings of many different intergovernmental organizations, and there are of course always reasons to be frustrated or impatient by the slow pace of decision-making, by the weight of bureaucracy, or by political considerations that have little or nothing to do directly with the issues these organizations are meant to address.

But there is something else here in the Whaling Commission. How can I put it?...The IWC cannot hide anymore that it has aged. Many of its patterns are from different times. It's got to move into the 21st century.

As we noted already a couple of weeks ago, this year marks the 60th anniversary of the adoption, in 1946 of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.

In those sixty years, humankind as well as the Ocean and the rest of the environment, let alone international environmental law, have changed considerably.

But, as the use in the StKitts Declaration of the word "normalization" examplifies (twenty years after Gorbachev's Perestroika !), the IWC continues to be stuck in the past.

Japan is seeking the right to harpoon whales. But today, they harpooned a dinosaur.

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