Japan this week formalized its withdrawal from the International Whaling Commission in a letter, setting the stage for its resumed killing of hundreds of whales in its coastal waters and perhaps elsewhere as well. Japan announced its departure from the IWC last month, and with the receipt of its official communique on the withdrawal, the clock now starts ticking on a one-month period during which other countries can indicate if they too wish to leave the IWC.
As a veteran of IWC politics for more than two decades, I have come to view Japan’s departure as a victory of rhetoric over reason. The IWC, established in 1946 when it became clear that whale populations were in trouble, struggled to try to make whaling sustainable for many decades before announcing the global ban on commercial whaling in 1982. Japan, however, never accepted this moratorium and, for many years, continued to kill whales using the ‘scientific research’ loophole in the 1946 convention text — a loophole that allows countries to allocate a quota to themselves to take whales for research. The loophole was created in an era when it was perceived that countries might need to investigate some urgent matter by studying the bodies of whales post-mortem.
But science has come a long way since then, and the IWC’s intention clearly was not to create a mechanism for Japan or any nation to hide or obscure the reality of a long-term commercial whaling program and catch.
In addition to its continued whaling, Japan has also tried repeatedly to overturn the moratorium. Its attacks have at times been subtle – for example trying to have new forms of whaling recognized. Other times, not so much. At the last meeting of the IWC in September Japan advanced a bundle of proposals that would have killed the global ban altogether.
Japan would like to present itself as the wounded party, forced to leave the IWC because its reasonable requests are not being listened to. But the fact is, commercial whaling is completely unnecessary; in fact, there is no pressing economic need for it and there is plummeting demand for whale meat in Japan itself.
Just as importantly, there is no way to kill whales humanely at sea, and there is no accepted international framework for the management of whaling in place. Moreover a majority of IWC member countries do not support killing whales for commercial purposes. Whales belong to no one country, they are typically highly mobile and many species are migratory. This is why the IWC’s jurisdiction has always covered all waters, right up to the shoreline.
Japan’s abandonment of the IWC is a calculated move that flouts the rule of law that should bind nations as a matter of course in their relations. It’s highly irresponsible behavior, and it is, in the end, simply beneath the dignity and honor of an otherwise important and conscientious ally to many in the community of nations. That’s certainly our view, and it’s the one we’ll work to impress upon the remaining member nations of the IWC and other relevant bodies. We cannot allow one country to step outside of the IWC and recommence commercial whaling. If other countries, following Japan’s example, start to do likewise, then we may see a return to the lawless days of previous centuries and the world’s whales will suffer.