[updated]

Japan scores a victory at the IWC:

Japan and other whaling nations on Sunday for the first time in two decades won support for a motion criticizing a global whaling ban.
The approval of a non-binding pro-whaling declaration by the International Whaling Commission, or IWC, does not immediately threaten a 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling, which is credited with saving the Earth’s largest creatures from extinction and which Japan would like to overturn.

But in backing by 33 votes to 32, a statement that said the whaling ban was no longer valid, that whales were responsible for depleting fish stocks and that non-governmental and environmental organizations were a “threat,” the IWC boosted Japan’s hopes of chipping away at the ban. There was one abstention.

“This is a huge disaster,” said Kitty Block of Humane Society International shortly after the vote at the annual June 16-20 meeting of the commission in the Caribbean island state of St. Kitts and Nevis.

“This is now going to be their propaganda.”

Japan has abided by the moratorium on commercial whaling since it came into force two decades ago, but, along with Iceland, uses a loophole in the ban to conduct scientific whaling. Norway is the only country that ignores the ban.

More than 25,000 whales have been hunted and killed since the moratorium came into force.

Even so, Japan and its allies have sought to overturn it, which would require support of three-quarters of the 70-nation body, and change the IWC back into an organisation that regulates whaling. They say some whale species have recovered and can be hunted in a sustainable way.

Some background: Japan, Norway, and other “whaling states” have been trying to get the IWC to relax restrictions on whale killing for some time. This time around, all sorts of people who don’t like the idea of slaughtering very intelligent megafauna are worried that Japan has, in essence, offered a lot of disinterested states financial quid-pro-quos in exchange for undermining whale protection. Yesterday Japan lost two key votes: one to allow restrictions to be overturned by simple majority votes and another to move to a secret-ballot vote. Both would’ve seriously endangered protections for whales. But Japan would’ve won both votes, according to the AFP, if Togo and Gambia hadn’t been late to the meeting:

Whaling opponents Australia, the United States, New Zealand, Brazil and Britain led resistance to Tokyo’s drive for a simple majority of pro-whaling states in two votes on the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

Their triumph was an eleventh hour surprise, as many activists and ministers voiced dark predictions of a Japanese victory, hours before the IWC annual meeting opened here.

“So far we have managed to dodge the harpoon, but let’s see how things go for the rest of the week,” said Dr. Joth Singh of the International Fund for Animal Welfare at the IWC annual meeting in this Caribbean state.

Mike Townsley, a Greenpeace spokesman told AFP: “it is clear Japan has failed to take over the IWC.”

Tokyo has made repeated bids to lead pro-whaling nations to power in the IWC, but this year, both sides of the argument believed Japan’s time had come.

A two-decades-old moratorium on commercial whaling is not under immediate threat — it needs a 75 percent majority in the IWC to be overturned.

But whaling opponents fear a simple voting majority here would enable Japan to turn the IWC from conservation back into a “whaling club.”

Japan argues the moratorium on commercial whaling has been so successful that whaling of certain species can now be carried out without harming whale stocks.

Currently, Japan conducts “scientific whaling” which is permitted by the IWC, along with Iceland. Norway rejects the moratorium entirely. In all around 2,000 whales are taken globally per year.

Ian Campbell, Australia’s environment minister said Friday’s rearguard action by whaling opponents had pushed the threat to the moratorium “down the line.”

“The great victory for whales we have had today so far, is we have raised the levels of understanding of this issue to levels which have probably not been seen since the 1970s.”

The demise of Japan’s plans was put down to the absence of Togo and Gambia. Sources told AFP both would have been in Japan’s camp, but they did not show up in time.

Had they been there, Japan probably would have secured enough votes to take an early grip on the meeting.

As it was, a proposal to introduce secret balloting failed by 33 votes to 30. A second vote to bar the IWC from discussing measures to protect small cetaceans, such as porpoises and small whales was also narrowly defeated — by 32 votes to 30 with one abstention.

Both items were considered key to Japan’s attempt to establish a solid pro-whaling majority on the commission for the first time since the moratorium came into force two decades ago.

Japanese sources said they had not given up hope of carving out a majority for pro-whaling nations on other issues at the five-day conference.

Heated debate is expected on Saturday on its proposal for “normalisation” which Japan’s opponents fear is whale hunting, by another name.

In a document obtained by AFP, Japan signaled it would push for a separate meeting of pro-whaling nations to discuss a possible return to commercial whaling outside IWC auspices before the annual meeting next year.

Earlier, Japan warned it could pull out of the organization if there was no progress towards its goals “within a few years.”

Japan also hoped to take a grip on the IWC at last year’s meeting in South Korea, but several states expected to vote with the pro-whaling bloc did not appear or pay their annual dues so could not vote.

Green campaigners accuse Japan of bribing small, developing states like Cambodia or Mongolia which have little interest in whaling, to join the commission with foreign aid.

They fear a majority for pro-whaling states would allow Japan to chip away the commercial whaling ban and throw environmental groups out of the meeting.

Tokyo denies claims it bribes small states with aid, pointing out that it also supports nations which oppose whaling, such as India and Argentina.

Japan’s hardball tactics over whaling contrast markedly with its “fierce” protest over North Korean missile-test preparations. I suppose I could make a joke about getting priorities straight, but the fact is that it is much easier for Japan to bribe Togo to change its vote at the IWC than to effect a shift in North Korea’s defense policy [but it looks like Japan is getting more serious. Halting remittance payments to North Korea, for example, would constitute a serious economic stick].

While there is significant evidence that regulated hunting of endangered species works better than outright bans, that doesn’t seem to be the case for whaling. Regardless, whales and elephants–and more so great apes–strike me as pretty much “no brainers” when it comes to animals we want to protect on aesthetic and ethical grounds. So what’s going on at the IWC can’t be good.

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