CARIBBEAN VIEW: Japan’s Yen for Whales Blown

By Sir Ronald Sanders
Sir Ronald Sanders
Sir Ronald Sanders

It’s not often that, apart from funerals, grown men are seen to shed tears openly, and certainly not tough men who have fought hard political campaigns in the relentless battleground of the United States and served on the staff of John Kerry, now US Secretary of State.

Yet, that is precisely what happened in the court room of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague on March 31, 2014 when a decision was handed down that Japan’s whaling programme in Antarctic waters was not ‘scientific’ research, but pure and simple commercial whaling that repeatedly violated a global moratorium instituted by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), and must cease.

The man who shed those tears was Patrick Ramage.  For years, he has been the lead person at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) in the campaign to stop Japan’s commercial whaling.   The ICJ’s judgement was the vindication of years of hard work that was, on numerous occasions, emotionally raw for him and many other deeply concerned environmentalists.  The tears of relief and satisfaction were shed for millions of people the world over who, in many ways, had contributed to the fight to stop Japan’s commercial whaling that was conducted under the pretext of ‘scientific research’.

The ICJ was firm in its judgement that Japan violated the IWC’s moratorium by issuing permits for its factory ships to enter the Antarctic to kill whales by the hundreds. The Court stated that Japan failed to justify its sample sizes—850 minke whales, plus or minus 10 per cent; 50 fin whales; and 50 humpbacks, and the Japanese government was given an immediate order to revoke any existing permits and to refrain from issuing any more. The judgment was ''final, without appeal, and binding on the parties''.

The case was taken to the ICJ by the government of Australia under the leadership of Kevin Rudd whose party now forms the opposition, after years of acrimony in the councils of the IWC between countries that opposed whaling and those that supported it principally Japan.  In the IWC forum, Japan received support from small states in the Caribbean and the Pacific – many of which were not involved in whaling but, it is claimed, were beneficiaries of Japanese aid in return for their votes.

Many international observers expressed the view that Japan had cynically taken advantage of the very small and resource-poor Caribbean and Pacific states by requiring their votes in return for aid.  Indeed, in the Caribbean, the only one of the small states that had any traditional interest in whaling is the island of St Vincent and the Grenadines to which the IWC has granted a disputed Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling quota.  Now watch-groups in St Vincent and the Grenadines and outside of it say that whaling from the Grenadine Island, Bequia, has become a blood sport and is not related to nutritional and subsistence needs –- an important test for the allocation of a quota.

The larger Caribbean countries –- Cuba, the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and Guyana –- never fell prey to Japanese overtures, and Dominica untangled itself a few years ago.

Even though Japan has continuously asserted that it was whaling for scientific research, whale meat was stockpiled in the country and the government mandated that the meat be served in state-funded institutions such as schools and welfare homes.  Despite this, Japanese themselves have rejected whale meat in their diets.  For instance, the country’s Ambassador to the US, Kenichiro Sasae, is reported to have said during a public meeting in Los Angeles in December 2013 that: “As an individual, I like whales and if you go out and see the whales, there is no reason for us to kill this lovely animal. But it’s history and it’s politics, I would say. There are a small number of Japanese people still trying to get this won. But mainstream Japanese are not eating whale anymore.”

In any event, the ICJ judgement caused Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, to state publicly that his government will abide by the court decision even as he said that the ruling was "a pity and I am deeply disappointed".

Japan conducts a similar whale hunt in the North Pacific as it hitherto did in the Antarctic.   The government will now have to re-think this undertaking in the wake of the ICJ judgement.  At least one expert in Japan believes that the government should abandon its whaling programme altogether.  Shohei Yonemoto, an environment and bioethics professor at the University of Tokyo, is reported to have said that Japan would be wise to abandon “the money-losing and controversial business”.

Should Japan abandon the whaling exercise, it is hardly likely to continue to give support for the attendance and voting at IWC meetings for the small states that have voted with it.   And, if in the light of Japan’s withdrawal of financial support, those countries stop participation in the IWC meetings, they will be hard-pressed to justify their attendance and voting record in the past.

As for ending the hunting of whales that has been endangering many of the species, there are still two countries that continue to object to the IWC moratorium.  They are Norway and Iceland.  The small Caribbean and Pacific countries are unlikely to be lured into their fight since neither country has sought to give aid in return for support at the IWC. 

In any event, Norway and Iceland will now come under considerable pressure from the international community – both governments and environmental groups -- which have been encouraged by the ICJ decision. As Patrick Ramage observed, the ruling "certainly has implications ultimately for whaling by Iceland and Norway, and it will increase pressure on those two countries to re-examine their own whaling practices and the various reasons and pretexts given for that whaling activity."

Meanwhile, the Japanese yen for whaling has suffered a huge blow.  Many Caribbean environmental groups that participated in the struggle to get their own governments not to support Japan will feel vindicated by the ICJ decision.  

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Sanders is a Consultant, Senior Fellow at London University and former Caibbean diplomat.  Responses and previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com

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