24/02/2015 06:29 GMT | Updated 19/04/2015 06:59 BST

Whaling: Japan Asks the Questions!

When the highest court in the world - the International Court of Justice (ICJ) -- ruled last March that Japan's whaling in Antarctica was illegal, many saw this as an opportunity for change. A few months later, however, at the recent meeting of the International Whaling Commission (September 2014), Japan made it clear that it would resume its so-called scientific whaling in the Southern Ocean with a new 'research plan'. It also brought forward a proposal to that meeting seeking an exemption from the IWC's commercial whaling moratorium for something that Japan calls 'Small Type Coastal Whaling' (STCW). It has submitted more than 20 proposals for STCW since the moratorium was implemented in 1986, claiming that the ban has 'wrought economic and social distress in its coastal whaling communities', but has never gained the three quarter majority vote needed to achieve this "emergency relief" quota. The last meeting was no exception.

As the ICJ ruling clarified, there are only three legal forms of whaling permitted by the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling:

  • commercial whaling (currently forbidden);
  • Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (granted to certain indigenous peoples with a longstanding cultural and subsistence need for whale meat, such as the Eskimos of Alaska); and, most controversial of all,
  • "special permit" or "scientific whaling", which allows member nations of the IWC to set their own whaling quotas for purposes of scientific research. It is Japan's whaling under this category in Antarctica that the ICJ determined to be illegal.

So where does STCW fit into this? Well it doesn't really, but if you abide by the old adage that if you insist on a thing long enough and loud enough it must be true, then it clearly exists for some! Japan's latest proposal asked for a quota of 17 minke whales (compared to 150 in previous proposals) for four coastal communities that they argue are still suffering, 30 years on, from the impacts of the whaling moratorium. Interestingly, and indicative of a new (actually a recycled, old) strategy, the language used by Japan in its most recent STCW proposal was strikingly similar to that used by Greenland in its proposal last year to secure an ASW quota. Indeed, the two whaling operations have similarities, including the commercial sale of whale products, but that's another story!

Recently Japan launched a public inquisition into why countries do not support its STCW. This is taking two forms: diplomatic visits from Japanese emissaries to the IWC delegates who voted against its proposal; and secondly a questionnaire that has appeared on the IWC website addressed to IWC member nations and accredited observers, seeking explanations of policy and principle.

A questionnaire would seem a reasonable and, indeed, transparent form of enquiry (replies will be posted to the IWC website too), but the IWC has debated the arguments for and against allowing STCW while the moratorium remains in place, for almost 30 years; there is almost nothing left to be said. No matter how Japan has dressed up its many proposals over the years, the Commission has remained fundamentally opposed.

This is unlikely to change since it is obvious to all that STCW is a strategy to undermine - or overturn - the moratorium by stealth, but there is no doubt that Japan is investing significant and impressive diplomatic muscle in its current efforts. Why?

Well, there is reason to believe that Japan was shocked by the ICJ's rejection of its Antarctic scientific whaling. Perhaps seeing the writing on the wall for that expensive charade, it is redoubling its efforts to undermine the moratorium and resume much cheaper commercial whaling closer to home. The two are not, of course, mutually exclusive. As noted, Japan is moving forward on its newest Antarctic research plan - a proposal to take 333 minke whales in the Southern Ocean in each of the next 12 whaling seasons, which it believes is consistent with the ICJ's judgement. A special review panel has recently been held in Tokyo to consider the scientific elements of the proposal and will report in to the next meeting of the IWC's Scientific Committee in May. Given that the Scientific Committee never comes to a clear view on such proposals and the IWC has no power to prohibit scientific whaling anyway, and no one is sure that a country will ask the ICJ to consider the matter again, it is perhaps inevitable that Japan will return to the Southern Ocean later this year. Securing an exemption to the moratorium as well, even for just a few whales, would be the icing on the cake and, to mix my metaphors, a foot in the door.

However, Japan should note that the commitment of those peoples and nations that see no place for whaling for profit in the modern world remains strong and, if anything, the current Japanese inquisition will be causing them to sharpen up their arguments and resolve against commercial whaling.

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