The Landmark Legal Decision That May Finally End Japan’s Annual Whale Hunts

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"The Landmark Legal Decision That May Finally End Japan’s Annual Whale Hunts"

A woman walks by Japan's whaling ship Nisshin Maru moored at a port in Tokyo

A woman walks by Japan’s whaling ship Nisshin Maru moored at a port in Tokyo

CREDIT: AP Photo/Itsuo Inuye

The United Nations’ highest court on Monday deemed Japan’s annual whaling hunt near Antarctica to be against international law and in violation of its treaty commitments, possibly bringing an end to the practice that conservation activists have condemned for years.

Monday’s ruling from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in a case between Australia and Japan has been nearly four years in the making. Every year, Japan has undertaken what it has labeled as a scientific hunt for whales in the Southern Ocean as part of their Second Phase of its Japanese Whale Research Program under Special Permit in the Antarctic (JARPA II). Under that program, Japan equips its whaling fleet a scientific permit for a “quota of up to 935 minke whales, 50 fin whales and 50 humpbacks,” though the humpback quota is at present “suspended.”

In May 2010, Australia alleged that the program was less about science, more about exploiting a legal loophole for the selling the whales captured for commercial purposes. In particular, Australia asked the Court to rule that in undertaking its annual hunt, Japan was failing to “observe the zero catch limit in relation to the killing of whales for commercial purposes,” as well as ignoring the 1986 moratorium “on taking, killing or treating of whales, except minke whales, by factory ships or whale catchers attached to factory ships.”

In their decision, the ICJ came down on the side of Australia and labeled Japan as breaching the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, a treaty which Japan has ratified — though it has withdrawn and rejoined the accord in the past. In a vote of 12-4, the Court ruled that “Japan, by granting special permits to kill, take and treat fin, humpback and Antarctic minke whales in pursuance of JARPA II” in vioatlion of the Whaling Convention. It also declared that Japan “shall revoke any extant authorization, permit or licence granted in relation to JARPA II, and refrain from granting any further permits in pursuance of that programme,” effectively placing a ban on the current practice in the Southern Ocean.

While reading the ruling, Judge Peter Tomka of Slovakia said, according to the New York Times, that the present phase of the “research program” has involved the killing of 3,600 minke whales and a number of fin whales, but that its “scientific output to date appears limited.” The ICJ decision’s impact is limited to the Southern Ocean whale hunts to which Australia has objected; other so-called “research” hunts in the North Pacific are still allowed to proceed under the decision. But Japan has agreed previously to accept all of the ICJ’s rulings as compulsory, forgoing the special agreements that the United States and other countries have signed limiting the jurisdiction of the Court, meaning the Japanese government will be forced to comply. There is no appeal process towards decisions taken at the International Court of Justice.

Monday’s ruling leaves open the possibility that the scientific whale hunts can resume in the future, if the program is reconfigured to be able to prove the validity of the scientific research it claims to be creating. But supporting such a revision could be outside the interest of Japan’s businesses, thanks to a declining interest in whale meat among Japanese populations. “The amount of whale meat stockpiled for lack of buyers has nearly doubled over 10 years, even as anti-whaling protests helped drive catches to record lows,” the Associated Press reported. “More than 2,300 minke whales worth of meat is sitting in freezers while whalers still plan to catch another 1,300 whales per year.”

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