Whaling forum seeks end to backroom dealing

The chronically deadlocked International Whaling Commission (IWC) will debate ways to boost transparency and battle alleged corruption within its ranks at a four-day meeting in Jersey from Monday.

Split evenly between pro- and anti-whaling nations, the 89-nation body was rocked last year by accusations that Japan used cash and development aid to buy votes from otherwise indifferent Caribbean and African nations.

Japan, which denied the charges, is one of three countries along with Norway and Iceland that practice commercial whaling despite a 1986 moratorium. Collectively, they harvest more than 1 000 of the marine mammals each year.

Smaller quotas are granted to other nations for traditional, indigenous whaling.

A much-touted attempt at the IWC’s 2010 meeting in Agadir, Morocco to bridge the decades-old divide between environmentalists and whale industry interests collapsed, and negotiators say no real compromise is in the offing now.

But pro-conservation members led by Britain—seat of the 65-year old commission which was set up to ensure sustainable whaling—have tabled a resolution that would end the dubious practice of allowing states to pay annual subscriptions by cash or cheque.

Ranging from several thousand to more than €100 000, the fees under the plan would have to be submitted by bank transfer, as it done in other international organisations, to lessen the chance of backroom dealing and third-party payments.

Also proposed are measures to boost the integrity and authority of the IWC’s scientific committee, provide greater voice and access for non-governmental organisations, and report more quickly and fully on commission proceedings.

“The IWC is the critical organisation governing both the hunting and conservation of whales. It’s credibility must be restored,” said Patrick Ramage, head of the whales programme at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), an advocacy group.

Britain alone is tabling the resolution rather that the 27-member European Union because Denmark refused to back the reforms, according to sources privy to discussions in the run-up to the meeting.

Deep-seated tradition
Denmark generally aligns itself with pro-whaling nations because two of its territories, the Faroes and Greenland, have deeply-rooted whaling traditions.

One question mark hanging over the meeting is how aggressively Japan will push its whaling interests, and whether it will seek a lifting of the moratorium in exchange for concessions, as it did last year.

Negotiators and observers say this is highly unlikely.

“They will probably keep a low profile, because they have had less time to prepare for the meeting and an important part of their whaling fleet was damaged” by the tsunami earlier this year, said Alexandre de Lichtervelde, Belgium’s commissioner to the IWC.

Domestic politics are also likely to discourage attempts to deviate from the status quo.

“Politicians [in Japan] have currently got their eyes on two things - -earthquake and tsunami recovery, and the forthcoming leadership change in the ruling Democratic Party of Japan,” said an analyst.

One wild card is what action Tokyo might demand in relation to the militant environmentalist group Sea Shepherd, headed by Paul Watson.

Japan recalled its Antarctic whaling fleet a month ahead of schedule in February, citing interference and sustained harassment from ships operated by Sea Shepherd.

Watson has already said he plans to resume his aggressive anti-whaling campaign, and has predicted Japan will abandon hunting in Antarctica, the site of one of two global whale preserves.

Consumption data suggest that Japanese people are not particularly inclined to eat whale, and the whaling issue has faded into the background in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, observers say.

But Sea Shepherd’s actions were highly unpopular in Japan, and any concessions could spark a backlash.

“It is often said that the Japanese are not ‘pro-whaling’ or ‘anti-whaling’, but they are certainly ‘anti-antiwhaling’,” the analyst said.

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