Friday, April 23, 2010

No rat for dinner (tonight)

The other day, I found two dead rats in my garden, and I thought I'd dress a table to take this photo. The idea was that I might soon need this photo to evoke Geoffrey Palmer's warning at the beginning of the Small Working Group of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) which I attended in Florida last month. Geoffrey, who was chairing the meeting, said in his opening remarks that for the negotiation to be successful, everyone at the end of it would need to have the feeling that they'd all been eating a rat together. It was Geoffrey's way of saying that if everyone, whalers and anti-whalers, really wanted to reach an agreement they would all have to give something away: some of their respective principles, some of their revenues and routine, some of their pride, etc.

Sixty days before the annual meeting of the IWC, yesterday was the deadline when a proposal had to be tabled for consideration this year. Last week, a 12-country Chair's Support Group had failed to reach a consensus that could be transmited to the annual meeting for its consideration, and instead the Chair and Vice-Chair of the Commission were asked to put forward a proposal. In the preceding 48 hours, some started to say they were smelling a rat, because informally the IWC Secretariat kept delaying the time at which they thought the proposal would be ready. Finally they settled for 22h00 UK time.

Everyone within the conservation community was disappointed when the proposal came through. The document is made up of 43 pages, but the priority focus of attention was Table 4 on page 15 and 16 with the proposed catch limits for the next ten years. The biggest disappointment is that the proposal contemplates a continuation of whaling inside the internationally agreed Southern Ocean sanctuary, where the Japanese whaling fleet has been defying the international community in the last 20 years with so-called scientific whaling activities. A phase down of the catches of minke whales is proposed, from 400 per year at the beginning to 200 per year at the end of the ten-year interim period covered by the "package". But there is a footnote (7) that suggests that annual catches could be much higher if in the preceding years, the fleet does not manage to fulfill this catch limit, for whatever reason. Even worst, Table 4 also suggests that the Japanese fleet could be allowed to catch ten fin whales (an endangered species) per year in the next two seasons, and then continue catching five per year until 2020. The document (including Table 4) contains other problematic elements, concerning -- among others -- Iceland's and Norway's whaling operations, several aspects of the proposed Japanese coastal whaling operations, uncertainties as to whether the international trade in whale meat will be prohibited, etc. At all costs, conservationists want to maintain the integrity of the moratorium on commercial whaling agreed in 1982, and of the Southern Ocean Sanctuary agreed in 1994. Condemnation by countries like New Zealand who had put high hopes in this process came very fast.

So, game over? I don't think so. No rat for dinner tonight. Not yet, at least. The structure of the IWC has similarities with the United Nations during the old Cold War era, and the proposal we've seen yesterday reflects this political reality. The current Chair of the IWC who co-authored the proposal, Cristian Maqueira from Chile comes from a country and a region that strongly opposes whaling, whereas the Vice-Chair, Antony Liverpool from the Caribbean nation of Antigua & Barbura has very strong ties with Japan's whaling interests (whatever is the reason). So, it would have been naive to expect that both of them alone could have sorted the IWC mess which no-one has managed to undo in more than 20 years.

What they've produced is presented as a basis for negotiation at the annual meeting in June. Read carefully what they say in the introduction, page 2 and 3:

"For the purposes of allowing for continued discussion, we have put in some example numbers in Table 4 [...] at this stage we have included a two-step decline in Antarctic minke whale catches [...] this is neither a continuous decline nor a stable limit [...] the only inevitable result of the example numbers we have inclued in Table 4 is that as a package they will [be] disliked by all for one reason or another, including ourselves. They are merely there to stimulate the necessary intense discussions and negotiations prior to Agadir [...] the text in the present document [...] represent[s] a starting point for further discussions and negotiations rather than a firm proposal". And they add: "Almost inevitably, there is a tendency for Governments of all persuasions to take the position that 'we' have given up more than 'them'. This is inevitable and natural." [emphasis added).

I'll undress my rat dinner table for now. But just in case, I'll keep it in the fridge.

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