Defending the kingdom

All's whale that ends whale?

In what is surely a landmark decision with regards to international environmental law, on Monday 31 March 2014, after years of protests and diplomatic disputes, the International Court of Justice ruled that Japan’s whaling programme in the Southern Ocean is not for scientific purposes and requested that it cease its operations there “with immediate effect.” The decision is binding so Japan cannot appeal and, so far, it seems Japan will honour the ruling, with chief negotiator Koji Tsuruoka stating that Japan respects the rule of law and, as a responsible member of the global community, it will abide by the decision of the court.

This is great news for whales, whose populations are in decline due to human activities. It is also good for the marine ecosystem and our burgeoning ecotourism industry. Yet the question remains, will this decision by the International Court of Justice actually stop whaling activities from occurring? The ruling halts Japan’s current whaling licences under Article VIII of the 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW), which allows for special permits for nations to “kill, take and treat” whales for purposes of scientific research, subject to restrictions, but it does not stop Japan from devising a new whaling programme that is more scientifically based; a programme that fits within Article VIII and therefore could still involve lethal research methods. There is also nothing stopping Japan from withdrawing from the ICRW altogether, as expressed in Article XI, with no backlash except maybe some murmurs of disappointment from other nations.

But, sadly, such seems to be the reality of much international law. Nations agree to be bound by treaties but also limit their own liability using exclusive jurisdiction over their own territories, creating treaties without any strict regulatory standards or protocols for punishment, essentially creating “soft laws” with no power of enforcement. Without any fear of reprisal there seems little incentive for nations to cooperate and sacrifice self-interest for the common good. If conserving whales (and other endangered species) is truly something that nations desire, then international treaties such as the ICRW must be made to have better protection of vulnerable species, and greater ability to enforce acquiescence, with stricter internal sanctions to penalise non-compliance, before more treasured species are gone forever.
This article first appeared in Issue 8, 2014.
Posted 4:31pm Sunday 13th April 2014 by Christian Hardy.