U.N. Court Orders Japan to Halt Whaling Off Antarctica
TOKYO — The decision to ban Japan’s annual whaling drive off Antarctica, handed down by the United Nations’ highest court on Monday, was a hard-won victory for conservationists who long argued that Tokyo’s whaling research was a cover for commercial whaling.
The ruling by the International Court of Justice in The Hague halts a Japanese program that has captured more than 10,000 minke and other whales in the Southern Ocean each year since 1988 in the name of biological research.
Japan may not be ready to lay down its harpoons entirely. Though the ruling is final, it allows the Japanese to continue to hunt whales under a redesigned program, said Nanami Kurasawa, who heads a marine conservation group in Tokyo.
And the court’s decision does not affect smaller hunts that Japan carries out in the northern Pacific, or coastal whaling carried out on a smaller scale by local fishermen.
“It’s an important decision, but it also leaves the Japanese government a lot of leeway,” Ms. Kurasawa said. “The Japanese government could start research whaling again but under a different name, and it would be out of the ruling’s purview.”
In a 12-to-4 judgment, the court found that Japan was in breach of its international obligations by catching and killing minke whales and issuing permits for hunting humpback and fin whales within the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, established by the International Whaling Commission.
Reading a summary of the judgment, the presiding judge, Peter Tomka of Slovakia, said that the latest Japanese program, which was expanded in 2005, had involved the killing of thousands of minke whales and a number of fin whales, but that its “scientific output to date appears limited.” The ruling suggested that Japan’s whaling hunt was based on politics and logistics, rather than science.
Lawyers attending the proceedings said there was a gasp among the audience when Judge Tomka ordered Japan to immediately “revoke all whaling permits” and not issue any new ones under the existing program.
“I rarely heard such an unequivocal, strong ruling at this court,” said a lawyer with long experience at the court who asked not to be named because he is working on a case in progress.
A Japanese foreign ministry spokesman, Noriyuki Shikata, was quoted in news reports as telling reporters in The Hague that the country “regrets and is deeply disappointed” by the decision.
But he also was quoted as saying that Japan respected the rule of law and would abide by the decision.
The ruling drew praise from environmental groups, including the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which has sent ships to the remote and icy waters to block and harass Japan’s whaling fleet.
“We are very happy with the backing of the International Court,” Geert Vons, a representative of Sea Shepherd, said after leaving the courtroom. “We had never expected such a strong ruling.”
Australia, a former whaling country, brought the suit against Japan in 2010, accusing the country of using a loophole to get around a 1986 worldwide moratorium on commercial whaling.
Despite the moratorium, Japan has captured and killed more than 10,000 whales in what Tokyo describes as efforts to collect data to monitor the impact of whales on Japan’s fishing industry and to study the health and habitat of the whale population.
To pay for the government program, the meat from the culled whales is sold and makes its way to supermarkets, restaurants and schools.
Still, Japan’s whaling program has struggled financially in recent years, as more Japanese consumers turn up their noses at whale meat and as environmental activists chasing whaling boats make the hunts more difficult. Hunts in recent years have relied on public subsidies, including money drawn from funds earmarked for Japan’s post-tsunami reconstruction.
Some critics said that Monday’s decision presented Japan with an opportunity to bow out of a practice that has become a drain on its finances, as well as a blow to its image abroad.
“This might be a good time to quit,” said Toshio Kasuya, an early collaborator on Japan’s research program who has since become one of its harshest critics. From early on, it became clear to researchers that the program did not prioritize scientific discovery, he said.
“The system is bankrupt,” Mr. Kasuya said.
Whaling is defended by some Japanese, however, who feel unfairly singled out by international criticism and who argue that the hunts are a Japanese tradition. These supporters make little pretense that whaling is carried out for science.
“Some people eat beef, others eat whale. We should respect all cultures,” said Komei Wani, who leads the Group to Preserve Whale Dietary Culture, based in the whaling town of Shimonoseki. “As long as there are enough whales to go around, why can’t we hunt a few?”