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June 21, 2010

IWC 2010: Day 1 Dispatch

Baksheesh, bilateralism, and boredom at IWC

Humane Society International

  • IWC decisions will determine the fate of whales. Rebecca Regnery/HSI

by Bernard Unti

The 62nd annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission in Agadir, Morocco started with the expected pomp and circumstance of congratulatory messages, a traditional dance troupe performance, and a coffee break. Then, less than an hour after it had begun, the session ended, for what Chair Anthony Liverpool said would be one and a half days of closed door bilateral talks between the whaling nations and conservation-minded nations.

That too, was expected, as Liverpool had announced his intention to call for such meetings on Sunday evening, a few hours after a new London Times story appeared, alleging that a Houston-based Japanese bag man had paid for the chairman’s travel and hotel bills for IWC 62.

In fact, a series of Times stories breaking on the eve of the meeting provided unprecedented detail concerning Japan’s baksheesh-driven vote mustering at IWC. It was an old story, but one with explosive potential at this year’s proceedings, where delegates from more than 80 nations are expected to consider a compromise proposal to lift the quarter-century long commercial whaling moratorium in exchange for promised catch reductions by the whaling nations.

You call that a plan?

The decision to shutter the main conference space just as it was filling up was vexing, given that the IWC proposal had been debated at a series of closed-door meetings for two years leading up to Agadir. Many involved with the process had had the reasonable expectation that the final round of discussion would be conducted openly.

On the other hand, public discussion of the IWC proposal on the table at Agadir had focused on its tremendous flaws. The IWC plan would not require that commercial whaling in the North Pacific and Norway and Iceland be phased down and out. The same is true for the plan advanced jointly by the Pew Environment Group, WWF, and Greenpeace. That is why neither one of these plans has the blessing of Humane Society International.

The gathering throng, killing time

In any event, the decision to close the plenary in favor of small, closed-door sessions left many delegates, non-governmental organization representatives, and corporate actors to play a waiting game in the Moroccan seaside resort. Some retreated to hotel rooms and lounges to watch the World Cup games in progress, while others huddled to review and parse language for proposals and counterproposals sponsored by one or another of the several delegations or private organizations.

In addition to the obvious suspects from government agencies devoted to foreign affairs, agriculture and fishery, and other concerns, the annual meeting of the IWC attracts a colorful cast of characters. A range of animal and environmental organizations, reflecting a variety of opinions on how to address whaling, fill the hotel lobbies, conference rooms and cafes, pounding away on their computers and handheld devices, and chattering about the various scenarios. Aboriginal groups from North America and their lobbyists are staying close to the U.S. delegation, to ensure the safety of their quotas and the separation of their interests from the wrangling and jockeying over commercial whaling by Japan, Iceland, and Norway. A handful of energy company representatives, on the watch for any moves that might affect their development and exploration projects around the world (a rising topic of concern among some scientists and delegations at the IWC) are also in evidence.

Lastly, there is the professional sustainable use crowd, present every year to advance arguments in favor of whaling, usually cast as a defense of aboriginal subsistence whaling but closely tied to the Japanese, Norwegian, and Icelandic positions at any given time. Apart from Japan’s sock puppet delegation representatives in the plenary sessions, this is the faction that gives the most entertainment at any IWC event. Presumably in Agadir on the Japanese tab, they are a reliable source of platitudes, half-truths, and preposterous claims.

The sands in the hourglass

That the IWC could do the world’s whales a lot more good is not in doubt, a point HSI made clear in both our opening statement and in a special session speech last week. Time doesn’t stand still for whales, as the discovery of a dead sperm whale just 77 miles south of the Deepwater Oil Rig explosion and spill in the Gulf of Mexico, just days before IWC 62 convened, made clear. Is Agadir going to be a turning point in the global campaign to save the whales, or just another port of call for the annual clash of diplomats, whale campaigners, oil and gas developers, and aboriginals seeking advantage in the long-running struggle for the soul of the IWC? We’ll find out.

Bernard Unti, Ph.D, is senior policy adviser and special assistant to the CEO/President of The Humane Society of the United States, and a Humane Society International delegate to the IWC.

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