The cause of human decency took a small step forward with a decision by the International Court of Justice (i.e. World Court) at The Hague, Netherlands on Monday. With its ruling in the case, Australia v. Japan, the court found that Japan’s program of whaling for the purposes of “science” was illegal under international law.
The World Court found Japan’s so-called “scientific” whaling program in the Antarctic failed to meet the conditions for scientific whaling under regulations set by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the body charged with the conservation of whales and the regulation of whaling.
The case came before the court as a result of two prior rulings by the IWC: the 1986 global ban on commercial whaling; and the 1994 declaration of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. The World Court also considered 30 IWC resolutions condemning Japan’s continued ruse.
Reading from the judgment, Presiding Judge Peter Tomka said the court had decided, by 12 votes to 4, that Japan should withdraw all permits and licenses for whaling in the Antarctic and refrain from issuing any new ones.
He further stated that Japan had caught some 3,600 minke whales since its current program began in 2005, but the scientific output was limited.
Japan had signed a moratorium on whaling in 1986, but continued whaling in the north and south Pacific under provisions that allowed for scientific research. It bears note that whale flesh is commonly sold in Japanese food markets.
In their march leading up to this decision, IWC scientists pointed out many of the grim facts of whaling, chief among them that very little scientific data actually came from Japan’s program.
Yet more grizzly is the cruelty of the whaling process. As the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) states, “Wounded, harpooned whales are dragged to whaling vessels, where they may be speared with more harpoons or shot with high-powered rifles. Whales which are harpooned near the tail and then winched in alive to the bow of the catcher ship eventually die of suffocation as their heads are forced underwater.”
The IFAW notes that this process often takes more than half an hour for the whales to die.
In contrast, non-harmful research on live whales has produced a decades-long trove of useful information about whales. Countries like Australia, Brazil, and the United States have united their research efforts under the banner of the Southern Ocean Research Partnership, which, according to the IFAW, “coordinates scientific research on Southern Ocean whales and their environment using effective benign techniques.”
Of course, research partnerships and rare court decisions do not a total ban on this barbarism make. Since its inception, Norway and Iceland have continued commercial whaling.
Patrick Ramage, the program director for the IFAW Whales project, made an important point in his commentary about the court ruling: “The decision will not be made in Washington, London, Canberra or Wellington, or on boats bumping into each other in the Southern Ocean. The decision finally to end commercial whaling must… be made in Tokyo, Oslo and Reykjavik by Japanese, Norwegian and Icelandic decision-makers.”
While Ramage is doubtless correct, painful history teaches us that financial motives — especially those cloaked in cultural or traditional rhetoric — are particularly difficult to supplant. At least for now, one more nation has chosen to do the right thing and abide the court’s ruling.