IWC 63: The Good, the Bad, the Even Worse

"That was the worst meeting that I have ever attended" commented a senior member of the U.S. delegation to the International Whaling Commission (IWC), upon departing the 63rd IWC meeting. Held in July on the British Isle of Jersey, the event must have been exceptionally bad to trigger such a comment, considering the long experience of this delegate. It was.

This was expected to be a cooling off year, sandwiched between last year’s IWC62 - where a disastrous "Future of the IWC" proposal that would have overturned the nearly 25-year-old commercial whaling moratorium was defeated (Fall 2010 AWI Quarterly), and next year’s IWC64 - that will involve the contentious reestablishment of five-year "Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling" quotas. As for cooling off, it turned out to be anything but.

Prior to IWC63, two issues generated most of the attention. The United States and New Zealand proposed a "Resolution to Maintain Progress on the Future of the IWC"  - ostensibly intended to build off goodwill created during past negotiations to reform the IWC. However, for some countries and many NGOs, still raw over the previous year’s battle, the draft resolution was interpreted as if the prior "Future of the IWC" proposal was being resuscitated - thus adding to the distrust of the two proposing countries. Ultimately, the controversy led to the resolution’s withdrawal.

Conversely, a proposal from the U.K. to substantively reform IWC procedures received high praise from many countries and NGOs. They felt that such reform was urgently needed to ensure that the IWC remained relevant - particularly in light of a high-profile vote buying scandal involving Japan at the 2010 meeting.

Before the debate on the U.K. proposal, however, there were accusations (fallacious, as it turned out) that the U.K. had purposefully delayed issuing visas to certain delegates from pro-whaling countries to ensure a vote disparity between whaling and anti-whaling nations. Indeed, as the meeting commenced, while the commercial whaling nations (Japan, Iceland, and Norway) were well represented, many of their allies were missing. In total, some 24 countries were not paid up on their IWC fees and were either absent, or present but barred from voting until their arrears were cleared - victims perhaps, of the increased scrutiny concerning vote-buying and Japan’s inability, consequently, to brazenly purchase their presence.

After the Scientific Committee - which continues to do stellar work despite the escalating intrusion of national politics into its discussions - provided a report on some of its deliberations, the U.K. reform proposal was put up for debate. This proposal contained many positive elements to modernize IWC operations, including a new payment system (to guard against future vote-buying), new reporting requirements, and provisions to improve transparency. Poland, the current E.U. President, began to introduce the U.K.-prepared document on behalf of the E.U., only to face an objection claiming that the E.U. was not a member of the IWC and therefore the proposal was invalid. This dustup forced the meeting to close so that the commissioners could meet privately to determine how to proceed.

The following morning, the U.K. presented its own modified proposal - albeit stripped of language that would have provided greater opportunities for civil society participation in IWC deliberations. Though many governments supported this change, Japan, Iceland, Norway and Denmark continue to oppose any increased opportunities for participation by NGOs - despite NGO expertise on nearly every issue of relevance to the IWC. As a result, the IWC treaty remains one of the few multi-national environmental agreements that provide no meaningful avenue for civil society to contribute constructively to the debate.

Despite this unfortunate setback and after considerable debate, the weakened U.K. proposal was adopted by consensus. Fortunately, many of the important elements, including the new payment structure, remained - prompting some NGOs to declare the decision as the most substantive made by the IWC since its vote to approve the commercial whaling moratorium in 1982.

At the start of the final day of the meeting, with nearly 20 agenda items remaining, there was a need to move expeditiously. It soon became apparent however, that expeditious action was not on the agendas of some delegates.

Before the day’s meeting began, Japan, Norway, Iceland and their allies gathered outside the room. The purpose of this pre-meeting huddle would soon become clear. After debate over a joint proposal by Argentina and Brazil to establish a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary (SAWS) - a proposal repeatedly made in previous IWC meetings - Japan threatened to walk out if any vote proceeded on said proposal. When a vote was requested by Argentina and Brazil and called for by the Chair, Japan and its allies promptly left the room as planned.

The sudden departure of several dozen countries led to another delay, as commissioners met to attempt to settle the question over whether the requisite quorum still existed: should the count include the number of countries attending the meeting or only the number of countries actually in the room at the time of the vote?

By the time this kerfuffle ended, lunch, tea time, and dinner had all passed and many delegates had already departed for home. After an interminable nine-hour delay, the meeting recommenced to review a document drafted by a small committee established to find a way beyond this latest obstruction triggered by Japan. That document simply put off discussing the definition of quorum and a vote on the SAWS proposal until IWC64 in 2012. The remaining agenda items were also put off until next year and the meeting - mercifully - ended.

Now that a few months have passed, the meeting might be considered a partial success given the adoption of the reform proposal. Unfortunately, IWC63 will also be remembered for wasting time, money, and carbon, as trust and goodwill built during the past few years evaporated and dysfunction - intentionally manufactured by Japan and its whaling allies - returned to form. If such antics continue in the future, the IWC may well implode. On the other hand, if the U.S. and other like-minded countries opposed to commercial whaling decide to use their collective political and legal influence to end whaling, this dying industry might finally be placed into the trash bin of history.