Patron: Her Excellency, The Right Honourable Dame Cindy Kiro, GNZM, QSO, Governor-General of New Zealand

Japan leaves the International Whaling Commission

By Dr Anita Perkins 

Welcome to 2019! We look forward to another fruitful year of discussing geopolitics and social issues in the Asia-Pacific region at our Asia Forum meet ups. The year has begun with much controversy in the United States as President Trump enters his third year in office. Thirty years following the fall of the Berlin Wall the President aims to secure over US $ 5 billion to fund the building of a wall in an attempt to curb illegal immigration on the border with Mexico.

In multilateral news, just after Christmas, Japan announced its withdrawal from the International Whaling Commission (IWC). The IWC, which has been around since 1946, is concerned with the conservation of whales and the management of whaling. In 1986, a moratorium was placed on commercial whaling, with exceptions for specific indigenous groups. Iceland and Norway objected to this moratorium and continue to practice commercial whaling, but remain in the IWC. Until late last year, Japan has carried out whaling under what it claimed to be in accordance with an exemption to the moratorium, that is, for scientific purposes. It has always emphasised the importance of whaling as a traditional cultural practice.

Australia and New Zealand have a long history of taking issue with Japan’s claims, specifically in relation to their whaling practices in the Southern Ocean. This has been an on-going issue for diplomatic relations. An International Court of Justice Case in 2014, which Australia took out against Japan with New Zealand as an intervening party, ruled that Japan’s programme of whaling in the Southern Ocean did not meet the IWC convention’s definition for scientific purposes. Japan ceased whaling in the Southern Ocean (for the 2014-15 season) and then continued under a new programme.

At an IWC meeting in Brazil, in September 2018, Japan proposed, unsuccessfully, that the IWC that commercial whaling be allowed to be resumed.  On 26 December, it subsequently announced its withdrawal from the IWC.

Japan announces IWC withdrawal; will resume commercial whaling

Japan stated that it would stop whaling in the Southern Ocean, but would carry out commercial whaling in the waters around Japan. Sea Shepherd claimed this as a victory for its long-held protests against whaling in the Antarctic region.

Sea Shepherd claims victory as Japan leaves International Whaling Commission

However, others, such as New Zealand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Winston Peters, and NGO Greenpeace, emphasised the disadvantages of Japan’s withdrawal from the IWC, particularly from the point of view of maintaining an understanding of the conservation and whaling occurring across the world’s oceans, and the impacts of this on biodiversity and the marine environment.

Winston Peters critical as Japan announces whaling will resume

Whereas Japan’s whaling has been a diplomatic issue largely discursively isolated from other diplomatic discussions, it will be of interest to international spectators in the coming months to note whether Japan’s withdrawal from the IWC is regarded as a turn on its engagement in multilateralism (in a similar vein to President Trump’s political trajectory), and whether this issue becomes more entwined with other issues in 2019, such as trade discussions.  Of great interest will also be the impact of this decision on the future of the IWC itself.

Exiting the IWC – a whale of a decision?