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Friday, 24 May, 2002, 16:37 GMT 17:37 UK
Analysis: Accusations fly at whaling meeting
Norwegian ship captures minke Whale
Japan wanted permission for some minke whale hunting

It was billed as the make-or-break meeting which could see the beginning of the end of the moratorium on commercial whaling introduced in 1986.

No decisions were made this week which anybody can be proud of

Stuart Chapman, Worldwide Fund for Nature
But this week's conference of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in Japan turned out to be just as inconclusive - though even more acrimonious - than previous gatherings of this peculiar institution.

Before the conference in the Japanese whaling port of Shimonoseki, British fisheries minister Elliott Morley warned that this would be the toughest meeting so far for those nations including the UK which have strongly opposed any moves towards a return of the large-scale killing of whales for their meat.

Japanese saleswoman arranges whale meat
Several small countries have backed the pro-whaling nations
This was because the pro-whaling countries led by Japan and Norway had steadily built up support in recent years from small developing nations, especially in the Caribbean.

These countries had joined the commission and backed an end to the moratorium, amid allegations - denied by the Japanese - that their votes had essentially been "bought" through promises of financial aid.

It was widely predicted that the small majority on the commission would be under threat with the addition this year of countries including Benin, Gabon, Palau and even Mongolia - a landlocked country not known for its interest in whaling.

Indigenous exceptions

But in the event, despite the most intensive lobbying operation so far by the Japanese, the pro-whaling nations did not achieve even a simple majority on any of the key votes, let alone the three-quarters majority required to overturn the moratorium.

Japan accused its opponents of operating double standards

One decision, however, did go Japan's way and according to its opponents reflected the extent to which the processes of the IWC have fallen into disrepute.

Both camps in the commission have in the past supported exceptions to the whaling ban for small indigenous communities who rely on whale meat to feed themselves and earn their livelihoods.

This year Japan had wanted to include in this category some of its own coastal communities, allowing them to catch 50 minke whales.

When that was defeated, the Japanese accused its opponents of operating double standards, and used its blocking minority to defeat proposals to extend the quota for Inuit and Chukotka peoples, mainly in Alaska, to catch bowhead whales for their subsistence.

Rules changed

This sparked fury from the United States delegation and environmental groups, who claimed that the tribes had been used as pawns in a political game, and would now face a real fight for survival.

Greenpeace protesters  at Whaling conference
Japan was accused of "buying" votes with aid
Stuart Chapman of the Worldwide Fund for Nature said at the end of the meeting: "No decisions were made this week which anybody can be proud of."

One little-noticed vote right at the end of the conference, however, could prove significant for future rounds of this annual ritual.

A change of rules was passed which ends the current system in which countries pay a flat-rate membership fee for taking part in the commission's proceedings.

Far from 'dispassionate'

Instead, the level of the charge will be linked to the wealth of each individual nation as calculated by the UN.

On fairness grounds, it was a difficult change to oppose.

But in practice, it means many more poor countries may be willing in future to join the commission and be "persuaded" by Japan to vote for an end to the moratorium.

So the pro-whaling countries have vowed to fight on.

But the real outcome of the conference was to demonstrate as never before how remote the whole process has become from any dispassionate debate about the best way to conserve whale stocks and support coastal communities.

Sea change?
Should the ban on whaling be lifted?
See also:

24 May 02 | Asia-Pacific
24 May 02 | Asia-Pacific
23 May 02 | Asia-Pacific
20 May 02 | Science/Nature
21 May 02 | Asia-Pacific
25 Apr 02 | Asia-Pacific
04 Oct 01 | Science/Nature
27 Jul 01 | Science/Nature
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