As Japan quits the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (IWC) to resume commercial whaling, Joanna Swabe and Matthew Collis urge the European Commission to put pressure on Europe’s trading partner to stop killing cetaceans and undermining international law.
Dr Joanna Swabe is a senior director of public affairs for Humane Society International/Europe and Matthew Collis is the director of international policy for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
The ink on the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement was barely dry when – on 26 December 2018 – the Japanese government proclaimed that it was walking out of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). This was just days after the European Parliament had given its consent to this trade agreement.
After many unsuccessful years of doing their utmost to undo the 1986 IWC moratorium on commercial whaling, Japan finally called it quits and is now set to unashamedly resume the commercial slaughter of minke, Bryde’s and sei whales in its coastal waters and Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) in the North Pacific.
Following a six-month built-in cooling-off period, Japan formally exited this international whale conservation body on 30 June.
From now on, our second-biggest trading partner in Asia will abandon any pretence that it is part of the global governance on whale conservation established by the IWC. However, while Japan can walk away from the IWC, it cannot escape its obligations under international law.
Japan remains a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS), which requires members to conserve whales, whether in their own waters or on the high seas.
Japan is making the political gamble that by restricting its whaling to its own coastal waters and EEZ, other nations will not have the appetite to challenge its abuse of international law and order.
There are also concerns that Japan may try to recruit other pro-whaling nations to leave the IWC and join a new Pacific whalers’ club to herald in a new era of the slaughter of cetaceans for profit. These provocations cannot be left unanswered by the international community, including whale conservation-minded nations of the EU.
The European public overwhelmingly rejects the cruelty of harpooning ocean leviathans for products that nobody needs or wants anymore; whaling is a dying industry in Japan, one that would not be able to survive commercially if it were not propped up continually by government subsidies.
The European Parliament has reflected the public’s view and explicitly requested in a 2016 Resolution that whaling be addressed in the EU’s bilateral relations with Japan: ‘with a view to abolishing the practice’.
Lamentably, while negotiating the EU-Japan trade deal, the European Commission consistently declined to raise the issue of whaling with Japan on the grounds that since there is no trade in whale products between the Parties, this issue was not relevant to the negotiations.
The Trade and Sustainable Development Chapter of the final agreement does, however, include a provision that states that “Each Party reaffirms its commitment to effectively implement in its laws, regulations and practices the multilateral environmental agreements to which it is party.”
Yet merely days after this agreement was finalised, Japan announced its departure from the IWC, which is the body that was set up by the terms of the ICRW. In so doing, Japan also stripped away the EU’s capacity to invoke this article to push them to comply with the IWC’s whaling moratorium.
Japan had, of course, never really ceased commercial whaling. They had simply dressed it up and cynically re-branded it as ‘scientific whaling,’ exploiting an article in the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling that allowed Parties to kill whales for research.
This article existed because the Convention came into being in 1946, long before modern non-lethal techniques were developed to study cetaceans and people truly understood how much suffering was inflicted on these sentient beings when harpooned.
The legitimacy of Japan’s use of the ‘scientific whaling clause’ was tested in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in a landmark case brought by Australia about Japan’s Antarctic whaling. The ICJ found against Japan in its 2014 verdict and Japan was ordered to desist.
It did so in the Southern Ocean for just one season and then resumed the killing under the terms of a “new” research programme, which was remarkably similar to the previous research programme, yet Japan claimed it met the court’s concerns.
Whether under the pretence of science or overtly commercial, as is now the case with Japan having quit the IWC, the reasons to oppose whaling remain the same. But the change in circumstance needs renewed diplomatic efforts.
The EU must take decisive action and send a strong signal to its trading partner that the slaughter of whales for profit is unsustainable and ethically unacceptable.
Together with other animal and environmental protection organisations, we are therefore calling on the Commission and Member States to take collective high-level diplomatic action to urge Japan to stop commercial whaling once and for all.