Whaling: Chaos or compromise?

Richard Black
Former environment correspondent

image copyrightSPL
image captionThe wrangling means issues such as strandings, ocean noise and ship collisions are not addressed

From the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting in Jersey:

The chaotic close of this year's IWC meeting had to be seen to be believed.

And for those who argue the body is ill-fit for purpose, archaic, hopelessly riven and suited only for the scrapyard, it provided perfect ammunition.

Let me try to set the picture out for you as best I can.

At the start of the final day, the Buenos Aires group of 14 Latin American countries demanded that their bid to have the South Atlantic Ocean declared a whale sanctuary be heard, debated and resolved, and voted upon if necessary.

This was despite the fact that there was no chance of them gaining the three-quarters majority needed to usher it through.

For the "pro-sustainable-use" bloc, headed by Japan and Iceland, this was unacceptable.

At the last two IWC meetings, the proposal had formed one small component of a much larger compromise package that also included acceptance of Japan's Antarctic whaling programme in scaled-down form, and quasi-commercial quotas for their coastal whaling towns.

The package was formally declared dead at last year's meeting, with each bloc blaming the other for intransigence.

So for Japan and its allies, to have the sanctuary proposal aired again in isolation, when they had been prepared to concede it as part of the big package if they also gained things they wanted, was just unacceptable.

Once it became clear that the Latin Americans were determined to have a vote, the pro-whaling countries got up and walked out, in a bid - as they made clear - to make the meeting inquorate.

The solution was for national representatives to go into a private meeting, to try to find a mutually acceptable way forward.

Even more extraordinarily, the meeting also had to discuss and decide what was meant by "quorate".

Half of the organisation's countries need to be present in order for votes to count; but was that half of all members, half of countries present at the beginning of the meeting, half of the number in the room at the time of the vote?

Different delegates gave me all three definitions; and despite the IWC having existed for 65 years, it's clear that no-one really knows.

You might also be wondering why the chairman and so many of the delegations were anxious to avoid having a vote.

After all, decisions are taken by voting in most national parliaments and in many other international organisations as well.

A two-week meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) might have 50, maybe even more - and it doesn't fall apart.

The issue here is that votes in the IWC used to be ritualised, meaningless, ridiculous, an exercise in grandstanding - because neither bloc was ever going to come near to gaining the three-quarters majority needed to make major changes.

During the two-year "peace process", IWC governments agreed new rules mandating they would strain every sinew to reach consensus where possible, and avoid going back to the years of pointless fractious discord.

The pro-whaling countries said the Latin Americans were doing precisely this, by calling a vote on something that was extracted from a bigger compromise package and which they could not win.

Behind closed doors, reportedly, quite a few other anti-whaling countries told them the same thing - the US and some Europeans, at least.

On the other hand, the Latin Americans insisted that the sanctuary was important to them and they were entitled to call for a vote - which, of course, they were.

Eventually a compromise was found... but finding it took nearly nine hours, time the meeting did not have, as it was already many hours behind schedule.

What the document says is that further efforts to find consensus will be made before the next meeting - and if it can't be found, the issue will go to a vote as the first item on the agenda next time.

The coming year will also be spent deciding what a quorum means in the world of the IWC.

In a sense, what was agreed is less telling than the fact that the process happened in the way it did.

This is my seventh IWC meeting. But many of the other journalists here were on their first - and there's been widespread and wide-eyed amazement along the press balcony at how little time is spent discussing things like whales, or even whaling.

And if next year does see a return to the old days of sterile stand-offs and unwinnable votes, we'll probably see even more points of order, procedural matters and accusations of bad faith - and even less time spent on the things this commission is supposed to be here to do.

Officially, every member government wants to be constructive and take things forward.

But there are two distinct versions of what "forward" means; and beneath the veil of harmony heaves a roiling discordant stew that occasionally, inevitably, boils over.

It's hard to see how this can change unless each side is really willing to yield ground.

This week, the Latin Americans weren't prepared to yield anything because they believe they are right in trying to bring extra conservation measures into force, because they believe the world should be about saving whales, with hunting consigned to the past.

The problem they face is that the other side believes it is right as well.