The U.N.’s International Court of Justice bans Japanese whaling activities in the South Pacific, saying Japan’s “scientific research” was just commercial whaling in disguise.
The United Nation’s International Court of Justice ruled on Monday that Japan’s whaling program in Antarctica was commercial whaling disguised as scientific research, and ordered a ban on whaling by the Japanese in the South Pacific.
Though Japan is supposed to abide by the International Whaling Commission’s 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling — which Norway and Iceland do not follow — Japan has exploited the legal loophole in the moratorium by claiming its whaling operations are purely for scientific purposes.
Brought before the court by Australia in May 2010, Australian officials asked the court to order Japan to cease its whaling operations and revoke “any authorizations, permits or licenses” to hunt whales in the South Pacific. Japan has killed about 10,000 whales since 1986, Australian officials argued, which is a large violation of the zero catch limit under the 1986 moratorium.
Halfway through the legal battle, New Zealand officials came out in support of Australia’s efforts to expose the Japanese whaling program for what it truly was because Japan openly admitted it allowed “scientists” to kill between 850 to 935 minke whales, 50 humpback whales and 50 fin whales for research purposes each year.
Though Japan tried to argue that its whaling program truly was scientific and that Australia was merely trying to politicize science in order to impose its own beliefs and cultural norms on Japan, the 16-member court sided with Australia in a 12-4 landmark ruling that found Japan’s whaling program was unlawful and violated Article 8 of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.
The judges who sided with Japan included judges from Japan, Egypt, Morocco and Somalia.
Australia and the whales may have come out as the top victors, but the court sided with Japan when it ruled that there is nothing in the 1986 accord that says whales cannot be killed for scientific purposes.
Ken Collins, a senior research fellow at the University of Southampton, however, stressed, “We do not need to kill whales to study them.
“Science has moved on a long way. We can learn much more by keeping them alive,” Collins said. “There is a huge raft of techniques based on direct observation, photography and tracking available. You can get DNA from their excreta, their poo, which floats to the surface.”
If the Japanese need actual whale tissue for their research, Collins recommends using a hollow needle fired from a crossbow, which takes a small bit of flesh from the animal without harming it, while allowing scientists to learn everything they would need to know.
A ‘whale’ of a win
The mass killings of Antarctic minke whales, in particular, were a concern for the court. These killings, ICJ Presiding Judge Peter Tomka said, made it evident that Japan did not attempt non-lethal methods for studying the animals, nor did they ever take fewer whales than they said they would take, indicating that the whales were likely being killed for their meat along with other whale-based materials such as cooking oil. Whale teeth are also used in a fashion similar to ivory elephant tusks — carved into statues or turned into weapons such as spears.
Pete Bethune, founder of the New Zealand-based Earthrace Conservation, a nonprofit dedicated to tackling serious issues threatening oceans and marine life around the world, was at the court when the case was first heard in June 2013 and on Monday to hear the verdict.
“I am absolutely thrilled,” Bethune said regarding the verdict. “Today will go down in history as a great day for whales, for conservation and for justice.”
Bethune explained, “The verdict makes Japan’s Research Whaling program, which has killed many thousands of whales in the name of science, illegal. It also halts any likely copycat programs from the likes of Russia and Korea which had the decision favored Japan had been expected to introduce research whaling programs of their own.”
International Fund for Welfare Animals director Patrick Ramage agreed with Bethune that “this is a win for the whales,” adding that he “was very surprised and delighted, we had hoped for this outcome but we didn’t expect it.”
While the decision was overwhelmingly positive for whales, Bethune said the one drawback with the court case is that it only addressed Japan’s scientific whaling program in Antarctica. Though the verdict has now made whaling illegal in the South Pacific, it still leaves Japan free to continue with research whaling in the northern region of the Pacific.
“I have no idea why Australia and New Zealand left the Northern Pacific out of their case,” Bethune said. “If the research program in Antarctica is illegal, then by definition so is the program in the Northern Pacific but it will require another court action to make this illegal also.”
Another element absent from the decision that animal rights activists and conservationists would like to see is a ban on Japan’s annual dolphin slaughter, which they hope the court will address when Japan’s ability to kill whales in the North Pacific is determined.
Given there is no appeals process associated with ICJ court decisions, the court’s ruling is legally binding for all three countries involved, and there isn’t anything they can do about the decision but obey it. Any anger Japanese officials may have regarding this decision may be taken out on Australia and New Zealand through political, financial and legal means, something other anti-whaling nations, including the United States, warned Australia could happen if it took its fight against Japan’s whale hunt into the courtroom.
It should be noted that while this case did end up before the U.N.’s Netherlands-based court in 2010, Australian officials unsuccessfully tried to save the whales through diplomatic negotiations.
While Australia’s Attorney-General George Brandis said that Australia and Japan only butted heads over this particular issue, there is some concern regarding how the two nations will be able to work together following this decision. These concerns are especially timely since Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott is scheduled to visit Japan next week to discuss a free trade agreement that has been in the works since 2007, as well as dropping tariffs on Japanese goods in order to reduce taxes on imported agricultural products, especially beef.
How the negotiations will go, or if they will even happen now that the court’s ruling has come out, is a concern for both countries, as Japan may decide to withdraw from the International Whaling Commission altogether in order to continue whaling.
Though Don Rothwell, professor of International Law at the Australian National University, said he doesn’t expect this whaling issue to be what leads to the end of the two nations’ “excellent bilateral relationship,” he said Australian lawmakers are carefully watching Japan’s response.
“Both Australia and New Zealand are very important partners and very strong in terms of security and economic matters, so it’s very important to keep these relations ever stronger,” said Japanese foreign affairs spokesman Noriyuki Shikata. “We have seen these differences of views and we have to overcome these differences and not allow them to have a negative impact.”
While Japanese lawmakers may understand the international community’s push to protect whales, polls show that the Japanese people don’t understand why whales should be protected. According to a Greenpeace-commissioned survey conducted by the Nippon Research Centre, 35 percent of Japanese agree commercial whaling should be allowed, while only 26 percent of respondents disagreed.
Unlike Canada, Norway and Iceland, whaling has no cultural significance in Japan. Eating whale meat has never been a tradition or common practice in Japanese culture, so accusations that the Australians were attempting to force their values and culture on the Japanese don’t seem to offer a valid argument. The real interest Japan has in the whaling industry is not entirely clear, but it’s likely political, since the government redirected taxpayer funds from Fukushima earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster efforts to whaling.
While the nation has gone along with other International Whaling Commission laws regarding whaling over the years, Japan has consistently accused those nations opposed to whaling of using conservation arguments that are not scientifically sound in order to ban whaling, which is reportedly what made Australia’s decision to bring the case before an international court so difficult.
Japan may have no choice but to accept the court’s widely-applauded ruling this time. If Australia were to push the envelope and ask for whaling to be banned in the North Pacific or for other aquatic life, such as dolphins, to be protected as well, however, Japan may retaliate.