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Last Updated: Friday, 25 May 2007, 09:46 GMT 10:46 UK
Moving the whaling debate forward
By the Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Palmer
By the Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Palmer

The debate over commercial whaling is brought to the table once again at the International Whaling Commission's annual meeting. But, Geoffrey Palmer argues in this week's Green Room, there may be ways to avoid the usual stalemate.

It is devoutly to be hoped that light rather than heat emerges from that discussion

Since the commercial whaling moratorium went into effect in 1986, more than 29,000 whales have been killed under objection and special permit whaling.

The Japanese government issues special permits, as it is able to do under the whaling convention, allowing hunting for scientific research; Norway and Iceland use an International Whaling Commission (IWC) regulation allowing exemptions from the moratorium.

For nearly 15 years the IWC annual meetings have been dominated by discussions on how to devise a scheme that allows commercial whaling to resume but properly protects the stocks.

A 75% majority is required in order for commercial whaling to resume under the whaling convention. But at present, the IWC member nations are divided over this issue.

One block of nations wishes to see commercial whaling resume even if those nations do not engage in it. Another block does not want to see commercial whaling resume under any circumstances. A middle group wants a compromise to be reached.

Debate has been highly divisive and anything but diplomatic. No agreement has been reached.

Menu of options

This debate has now become so intense that efforts are being made to cast around for solutions.

The Pew Charitable Trusts, with the support of the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep), sponsored a meeting at the UN in April, in New York, entitled Symposium on the State of the Conservation of Whales in the 21st Century, which I chaired.

The meeting had representation from around the world and had about equal numbers of people with IWC experience, NGO experience, and environmental experience but not with whales. This mix did turn out to produce new perspectives.

For two days, participants in the conference looked at four main themes:

  • the state of whale stocks and the science relating to them
  • developments in international ocean law
  • diplomatic means that may be available to address the impasse
  • suggestions for the future

What emerged from these deliberations was a menu of options that may offer a way forward.

Dead whale
One block of nations wishes to see commercial whaling resume

No coalition of views around any single option emerged, but new suggestions were made that had not been heard before. Many are worthy of further exploration.

There was a view that the current arrangements, contentious as they are, may be the best available means of protecting whales.

According to that view, present policy settings should be maintained and efforts should be made to continue a further conservation agenda within the IWC.

Indeed, throughout the conference, there were no suggestions that the IWC could be dispensed with, although there were many ideas on how to cure its afflictions.

Protest against whaling
Pro-conservation countries consult with their pro-conservation NGOs

One of these was that a number of changes should be made to the whaling convention in order to remove or restrict the use of scientific whaling. Another was to have better enforcement of the convention with a new dispute settlement provision and no capacity to make reservations to the new rules or opt out.

There were suggestions that commercial whaling should resume on a limited basis, provided that scientific whaling is abandoned and there is a ban on the international trade in whale meat.

Whaling in sanctuaries (large areas where whales are protected by a decision of the International Whaling Commission, such as the Southern Seas) would have to be phased out as well.

Higher authority

It was widely agreed that there needed to be a more diplomatic atmosphere within the IWC.

One complexity of whaling politics is that - although it is governments who make decisions - they need to take into account the feelings of public opinion, which are heavily politically and emotionally charged on both sides.

For every important step, pro-conservation countries consult with their pro-conservation NGOs. So do the whaling countries with the representatives of their pro-whaling interests.

There were also propositions that attempts be made to settle the problems by a "higher" authority such as an independent world commission, a ministerial summit held on the 60th anniversary of the IWC, or a mutually agreed binding mediation or arbitration procedure.

Others thought an international diplomatic conference under the auspices of the UN should be convened, or an independent group of eminent persons be assembled to make recommendations.

Another idea was that the whaling issue should be integrated into broader oceans, biodiversity and species protection programmes.

There has to be a better way forward

There were thoughts that research be conducted into the economics of whaling; whale watching means that whales are worth more alive than dead. The question of subsidies for whaling should also be explored.

One strong suggestion was that new approaches to conflict management within the IWC should be explored. This case was presented in a most compelling fashion.

Only time will tell whether solutions will emerge to what has become an increasingly pressing diplomatic problem.

The future of the IWC will be debated as a separate agenda item for the first time this year at the annual meeting in Anchorage, Alaska. It will be a good opportunity to test the ideas that arose in this meeting. I am eager to hear the response from all countries.

It is devoutly to be hoped that light rather than heat emerges from that discussion.

So many members of the IWC are unhappy with the current situation that there has to be a better way forward.

Sir Geoffrey was Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1989-1990. He is the president of the Law Commission in New Zealand and that country's Commissioner to the IWC.

The Green Room is a series of opinion pieces on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website.

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