Notes from the 50th IWC meeting in Oman

by Paul Spong - May 31, 1998

Upwards of 300 people from 33+ nations & dozens of NGOs gathered at the Al Bustan Palace Hotel near Muscat, Oman, May 16-20 to (once again) debate and decide the fate of whales. Safe from the 50 degree Celsius heat outside, and about as isolated from the real world as it could get, the meeting stumbled along to a shaky inconclusion. On the surface not much changed in Oman, but below, an unsettling rot was spreading. Those of you who've heard about the two preceding meetings of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), in Monaco and Antigua, will know that things have been getting worse for whales lately. Despite the "moratorium" on commercial whaling the Commission voted for in 1982 and attempted to put into effect in 1986, more than 1,000 whales are now being killed annually, mostly by Japan and Norway. Both of these nations are members of the IWC... and the continued killing is being carried out under the "rules", i.e. "legally". Japan blithely issues itself permits to conduct so called "scientific" whaling , and Norway issues itself quotas to kill minke whales for openly commercial purposes. That is not to say that the spirit of the moratorium isn't being violated every time a harpoon explodes, rather that the IWC, as a regulatory body, depends more on the willingness of the parties to comply with decisions that are made than on any real ability to enforce them. Unfortunately, far too many members of the IWC are unwilling to participate honestly. Given the sorry history of whaling, the underhanded trickery and cheating tactics of the whalers is to be expected, but those of you who love the relaxed ambience of the Caribbean will be mortified to learn that five of the calypso islands have allowed themselves to become no more than lackeys of Japan. Their agendas have nothing to do with whales and everything to do with following the lead of their masters, supporting their every move no matter how ridiculous it might be. There's an amusing side to this at times... the eloquence of natural pulpiteers being spent in support of excluding whale watching and even the word "humane" from the agenda of the IWC... but there's a sinister edge to it as well. By buying the votes of an expanding minority of the Commission, Japan is openly hijacking its agenda and frustrating the efforts of not only those who want to save whales, but those who are serious about the formal mandate of the Commission too. The result is seen by some members as an impasse that needs to be broken. Hence the "Irish Initiative".

Oman was the third meeting of the Commission in which the well intentioned but cloudy thinking of the now Chairman of the IWC, Michael Canny, has been on the agenda. Canny's proposal grew out of the increasing frustration inherent in the spectacle of more and more whales being killed each year, the inability of the Commission to do anything about that, and the unwillingness of member states (especially the U.S.A.) to unilaterally use their powers to change the situation. The idea is perhaps simple... exchange a "small" number of whales killed in coastal waters under "strict control" for a de facto "sanctuary" in most of the world's oceans... but in practice it has fatal flaws. The scheme is grounded in the fact that two nations have defied the will of the world and gone on killing whales regardless of that will. Now, instead of applying pressure on these nations to make them comply, the Irish idea is to give in and let them have their way. Even elementary school students of history know enough to understand the consequences of this sort of strategy. Too bad Poland isn't a member of the IWC. Apart from its rotten foundation, the plan rests on the assumption that the whalers can be talked into abiding by strict rules, most important of which are agreeing to limits on numbers set by the Commission, a ban on all international trade in whale products, and strict monitoring protocols (via DNA registration & sampling). Though the limitations sound reasonable to some members who would rather conduct the Commissions's business in an orderly fashion, they are anathema to the whalers who, after all this time, are still single-mindedly intent on reopening whaling on whatever fronts they choose or which might offer themselves.

It's very clear to me, after watching the three recent rounds, that the whalers are getting a lot of help these days. Not only are the (un)Wise Users omnipresent on all sides, bending ears & pulling strings, but the Scientific Committee and the Secretariat are gung ho too. Even worse, many of the nations who enthusiastically endorsed the moratorium and strenuously opposed efforts to overturn it a decade ago, now seem willing to abandon it for a lot less than the Irish suggest. List Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, Finland, South Africa, Mexico, Oman, and sadly now Spain, among these some or all of the time. That's a voting block more than equal to the whalers' b&pf club (Antigua, Dominica, Grenada, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, & Solomon Islands). Adding them to the circle of entrenched and would be whalers (Japan, Norway, Denmark, Russia, Korea, China), and you can see the danger. It will take a three quarters majority +1 to overturn the moratorium. As things stood at the end of the Oman meeting, the whalers are just a few votes shy. If they had come to the table with a less transparent intransigence, and if they had had more control over the enthusiasm of their troops, they may have won the day in Oman... but they didn't, and (you'll be glad to hear this) I'm beginning to see they never will. Here's why...

There's very little question that the whalers are overplaying their hand at the IWC. The tactics they used to delay, bend, evade and sidetrack the agenda of the Oman meeting had even some of their would be allies cringing. The Netherlands, as a case in point, latterly seeming more than willing to see whaling start up again, was clearly frustrated by the obstinate prevarication of the whalers. By the end of the meeting, the Netherlands had joined New Zealand (always a shining light) in insisting that the debate over the Irish proposal be concluded expeditiously. If that happens, and the Irish proposal is voted on and out of orbit in Grenada (i.e. at next year's meeting) the way will be clear for a truly new beginning for a new Millennium in Australia, the venue for IWC 2000. We'll see if I'm right about this, but there were other clues too, some written in caps, others more subtle... ENVIRONMENT, by consensus, became a formal part of the IWC agenda; the Japanese Commissioner forever (Shima) got visibly angry, more than once; the Scientific Committee was put on notice, though in the end its wrist wasn't slapped, about setting its own (pro whaling) agenda; and CITES was told (asked) to keep its hands off whales.

I left Oman feeling the game neither won nor lost, rather that it was stalemated. I don't feel badly about that, preferring the whalers to be clearly seen for the pirates they are than for them to have acquired any tint of acceptability. My sense, as always, is that the end is certain... I just don't know when it will come.

Here's the best sign that happened for me in Oman: I was driving down the crowded highway heading for the meeting on the morning of the first day... closing in on a sporty vehicle with a covered wheel at the rear. A whale's flukes came into focus on it, then the words "Whale Coast Oman", and around the perimeter, "Whale and dolphin rescue team". OK! Day, and week, made... does anyone here have doubts?

Cheers, & my best to you all,


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