Whale meeting heads for discord

The annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in Panama is about six weeks away, and it’s shaping up to be an important and perhaps defining moment.

A recent change of rules means resolutions have to be posted on the organisation’s website 60 days before meetings begin, so we have more advance notice of countries’ real intentions than formerly.

The Latin American bloc – known as the Buenos Aires Group for these purposes – has lodged a bid to create a whale sanctuary in the South Atlantic Ocean.

Japan has set down a motion reserving its right to request a commercial or quasi-commercial hunting quota for minke whales in its coastal waters.

Monaco is looking for the IWC to refer whale protection to the UN; and, as happens every five years, various countries will be seeking to extend subsistence hunting permits for indigenous communities, mainly in the Arctic.

The South Atlantic sanctuary and Japan’s coastal whaling bid have both been tabled year after year.

Mutual acceptance of these proposals was one of the main elements of the “peace package” that countries pursued for three years before admitting at the 2010 meeting that minds couldn’t quite meet.

But the two main blocs within the IWC don’t agree on where the process formally known as the Future of the IWC is now.

When I spoke during the week to Brazil’s commissioner to the IWC, Marcos Vinicius Pinta Gama, he described the compromise package as “dead”, and I have heard the same thing from several European delegates.

But Japan’s deputy commissioner Akima Umezawa disagreed.

“Look at last year’s report – it says we should continue dialogue, continue to build trust and encourage continued co-operation,” he said.

“So the Future of the IWC process is not dead.”

So here is part of what makes this year’s cocktail of resolutions potentially explosive.

During the course of the Future of the IWC negotiations, governments agreed that they would not put resolutions to the vote, but try for consensus.

IWC rules mean that most important changes require a three-quarters majority – and with the commission split roughly 50-50 into countries that oppose whaling and those that vote for its continuance, the prospects of critical measures being passed are somewhere near zero.

Last year, despite the maths, the Latin American bloc insisted on its right to put the whale sanctuary proposal to a vote.

Japan and its allies said this was a breach of faith, as they had been prepared to accept the sanctuary bid as long as it was part of a compromise package.

So they walked out – which the anti-whaling bloc regarded as a breach of faith. A recent communique from the Buenos Aires Group called it “abusive behaviour”.

There came the somewhat surreal realisation that no-one knew how a quorum was defined in IWC rules.

And after a year’s discussion within a small working group, it’s clear that as yet there is still no agreed definition.

You might think it should be a simple question to settle.

But in the febrile and anarchic world of whaling, it’s become politicised, with different blocs arguing for the position that suits them best.

In order to get last year’s meeting closed, the compromise was that the sanctuary vote would be held over until this year, when it will be the first substantive item on the agenda.

And Mr Pinta Gama told me that the Latin American bloc is not intending to hold back.

“We hope common sense will prevail, that we’ll be able to have a normal meeting with clear rules including the one on the quorum, and that we’ll be able to take a decision on this [sanctuary] proposal that has been on the table for many years.

“It’s going to be difficult, we know, but we think that we have to pursue this objective.”