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July 14, 2011

IWC 63 Day Four

Jersey Boys: Fuh-gedda-boud-dit, whales: No sanctuary for you

Humane Society International

  • A whale advocate walking down the street. Rebecca Regnery/HSI

by Bernard Unti

Yesterday’s feel-good atmosphere dissolved into profound uncertainty after Japan led the IWC’s pro-whaling bloc in a walkout intended to break the body’s quorum, with a vote on the South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary looming. What promised to be a day filled with discussions of important conservation work and other matters instead became the occasion for a closed door commissioners’ meeting and a lot of wrangling over quorum and other procedural rules.

By the time the Commission resumed in open session on Thursday evening, it was time to close IWC 63. In the interim, the commissioners had privately worked out a statement to explain away the near meltdown and restore some prospect for comity within the IWC in the future.

The South Atlantic Sanctuary goes to a vote—almost

The sight of the entire pro-whaling use caucus meeting conspicuously in a public place is not generally a good sign, and they did so twice during the morning session.

It quickly became clear that the bloc was choreographing a show of force in the face of what they believed inevitable, the call for a vote on a proposal to create a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary.

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Last presented in Santiago, Chile in 2008, the sanctuary proposal had most recently been considered in various versions of the compromise package promoted by former IWC chairperson William Hogarth. The Buenos Aires Group, a bloc of Latin American nations with a strong pro-whale sentiment, had signaled its intention to advance the proposal once again, in Jersey.

Once the delegates’ interventions began, the proposal, sponsored by Brazil and Argentina on behalf of the Buenos Aires Group, received the support of the EU bloc (including Denmark, under instruction), the United States, Israel, and all of the Latin American nations. But the Japan bloc, along with Iceland and Norway, and others opposed it. And Russia asked the sponsors to withdraw it.

Japan leads the walkout

After brief interventions from a number of delegations for and against the proposal, the chairman recognized Japan’s deputy commissioner and de facto delegation lead Joji Morishita, who indicated that he was speaking for countries supporting the sustainable use of whales, and laid down the marker for the day. Voting on the proposal would have a negative effect in light of the consensus-based approach to which all parties had committed themselves in recent years. If the body took the matter to a vote, he stated, his bloc would exit the hall and break the quorum.

Brazil requested a vote, and the chair asked the secretary to prepare for one. Morishita immediately rose to leave, and so did Japan’s allies in the whaling bloc: Iceland, Denmark, Norway, the African countries, and most of the Caribbean countries. Their delegates filed out of the hall, setting the stage for a six-hour marathon session behind closed doors.

Once more to the barricades

Extensive private consultations did not produce resolution on the procedural challenge the Commission faced, especially in relation to Japan’s action and its triggering of the quorum provisions in the IWC’s rules of procedure.

At 8:30 p.m., the commission reconvened in public, with a document that had taken most of the day to generate. It was a set of paragraphs for inclusion in the chairperson’s report of IWC 63, and it related that a majority of commissioners present had been ready to support the proposal. And in the crucial statement, it indicated that the establishment of a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary would be primary on the agenda of IWC 64 in Panama.

Science on the menu—not!

The scientific issues should have received greater attention in the plenary sessions. But the issue of cash payments and related concerns had to be resolved, and the time IWC delegates spent on discussing and passing the UK resolution was time well spent. Then there was the delay caused by the walkout. Notwithstanding, the work of the Scientific Committee at IWC remains stellar, and it is something that should not be taken for granted. The collective energy and intelligence of the scientists who comprise the committee, regardless of affiliation, continues to produce scholarship, insights, and political and policy opportunities of importance to whales and those trying to help them. Whatever else occurs within the IWC context, year in and year out, the Scientific Committee has set the standard for the kind of body that the IWC could become in the future.

A glint of tangible whale conservation appeared at the very end of the meeting, when the chairman announced that non-governmental organizations, including HSI, had committed funds toward IWC efforts to increase protection for small cetaceans, with additional pledges of support from Italy and France.

Can’t we all just get along?

Over time, both the whaling and the pro-whaling factions within IWC have proven their skills at procedural maneuvers, but Day Four’s gambit by Japan and its allies was without precedent. There have been walkouts, but never any to break a quorum. It was not a good day, and its repercussions are likely to be felt in the year to come.

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Bernard Unti, Ph.D, is senior policy advisor and special assistant to the CEO/president of The Humane Society of the United States.

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