Australia on Friday warned Japan to end its “scientific” whale hunts in the Antarctic by November or face international legal action, in a move that threatens to sour relations between the Asia-Pacific allies.
The Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has threatened legal action before in an attempt to end the slaughter every winter of 1 000 whales in the Southern Ocean.
His latest warning comes on the eve of an official visit by the Japanese Foreign Minister, Katsuya Okada, for talks that were supposed to focus on the countries’ increasing trade and military ties.
Rudd said he would prefer to reduce Japan’s whaling activities “to zero” through negotiation.
“But if that fails — and I’m saying this very bluntly and very clearly — then we will initiate that court action before the commencement of the whaling season in November 2010,” he told Network Seven TV.
Rudd, who faces an election this year, added: “That is a direct honouring of the commitment I gave to the Australian people. And that is the right way to handle it with a friend and partner, Japan, which is also a very significant, long-standing economic partner as well.
“That’s the bottom line and we’re very clear with the Japanese that’s what we intend to do.”
Okada, who is to hold talks with his counterpart, Stephen Smith, over the weekend, suggested Rudd’s move was little more than an attempt at early electioneering.
“We understand that the current Australian government in its manifesto opposes whaling for research purposes,” Okada told reporters in Tokyo. “With that in mind, we would like to have a calm and substantial discussion.”
Australia says it has collected enough video and photographic evidence to launch legal action against Japan at the international court of justice in The Hague or the international tribunal for the law of the sea in Hamburg.
The Rudd administration is a vocal critic of Japan’s annual hunts, which it says take place in international waters that include an Australian maritime rescue zone that Canberra regards as a whale sanctuary.
Japan, however, does not recognise those claims, and says its right to conduct “lethal research” in the area is protected by the International Whaling Commission (IWC).
Japan’s whaling fleet has been involved in several skirmishes with activists during the current season. On Monday Pete Bethune, a member of the Sea Shepherd conservation group, jumped aboard the fleet’s security vessel, the Shonan Maru No 2, to “arrest” the captain over the sinking of a protest boat last month.
Bethune, the former skipper of the Ady Gil, which was ripped in half in a collision with the Shonan Maru No 2 in early January, is being detained aboard the ship and could face charges of trespass and assault when he arrives in Japan in about a month’s time.
Masayuki Komatsu, a former delegate to the IWC, said he was “very confident” that Japan would win any legal confrontation.
But maritime law experts believe Australia has a strong case for arguing that Japan is abusing its right to conduct whaling for scientific research.
Don Rothwell, a professor of international law at the Australian National University, has said that either court would probably grant an immediate injunction ordering Japan to stop whaling, pending a negotiated settlement. – guardian.co.uk