Friday, June 22, 2012

Who’s who at the International Whaling Commission (IWC)

Although I’ve said before that I’m not really allowed to talk about what goes on at the meeting I’m in, I can give you some background information about who’s who at the meeting. First of all, those on the side of conservation.

At the moment Australia are leading the forces of light. This started a couple of years ago, and has a lot to do with Pete Garret, once of the band Midnight Oil, becoming the Australian environment minister. Garrett was particularly enthusiastic to be engaged in the whaling issue, and although Australia has always been a very active player at the IWC, they had more government support thanks to Garrett. New Zealand used to be the conservation heroes, but have gone very quiet in recent years, mostly because of a more conservative government and lack of funds. The UK is pretty active, although is a more subtle way – their Commissioners Richard and Trevor used to be like the Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie of the Commission, being terribly polite, diplomatic, yet extremely sarcastic and very cutting. Sadly Richard has retired and the IWC meetings have got a lot less witty. Most of the European countries are pro-conservation, but these days the European nations have to have consensus and vote at international meetings as a block, and getting all of these countries to co-ordinate is, to say the least, a little difficult. Denmark is the problem child in Europe. Although a member of the European Union (in which killing whales and dolphins is banned), Denmark has dominion over Greenland and the Faeroes (part of Europe, but also separate, like the Puerto Rico and Samoa of Europe, but not as sunny, nor as good at sports), both of which have whaling/dolphin hunts. So, Denmark supports the hunts of marine mammals and is the sand in the ointment in the European delegation. Talking about the European countries I should highlight the Luxemburg delegation – they might be a small delegation, but they always know where the best restaurants and bars are. Various Latin American countries also work as a block: Chile, Argentina and Brazil are particularly active and passionate about whale conservation, and other Latin American countries try to back them up, although are often strapped for cash to send delegates to meetings.

Representing the dark side of the force, Japan is the main player, with Norway, Iceland (nb neither Iceland nor Norway are members of the European Union and so what I said above does not count for them), and Korea. A controversial aspect of the IWC is the number of small developing nations that have recently joined the IWC and vote with Japan on whaling issues. In 2010, a UK newspaper conducted a reporting ‘sting’ operating and filmed one of the delegates admitting having taken Japanese money in exchange for their vote at the IWC. The fact that the delegate in question was the vice-chair of the Commission caused huge scandal that year.

So where is  the US in this? Well the US is usually on the side of good, but it is a whaling nation (there is “aboriginal” whaling for bowhead whales in Alaska, as well as hunts for beluga and narwhals). Whenever it’s a year to discuss bowhead whale quotas, the US bends over backwards not to upset any whaling nations so they can get the bowhead whale quota for native Americans. Two years ago, the US led the charge to roll back the current whaling ban/moratorium in an extremely politically naïve attempt to “solve the whaling deadlock at the IWC once and for all”. The idea was that by allowing commercial whaling to resume, then the uncontrolled “scientific whaling” would stop. What the likely result would have been – commercial whaling with countries using “scientific whaling” to top up their quotas, and virtually no way to rein whaling in. Luckily the US initiative failed (thanks to the Latin American and European blocks), and the US commissioner who suggested this initiative has been “moved on”. Hopefully the US will be more conservation-focused this year, when it comes to the Commission meeting… let’s see.

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