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Sabotage and Indolence at the IWC, a Mix to Bury the Future of Whales

Frustration, blackmail, offense, hijacking, humiliation, dismay, disappointment and obstructionism. The fourth day of the plenary meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) began with strong words. These showed the bafflement and indignation of Latin American delegates at the evident sabotage of the Commission’s work by one group of countries, and the abandonment of whale conservation commitments by another.

The most important decision that day was the creation of the South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary, a proposal led by Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay and supported by most members of the Commission, including the group of Latin American countries known as the Buenos Aires Group[1].

Everything predicted that after 20 years of waiting for its approval, the 68th plenary meeting in Slovenia would be the moment to achieve it. It would also show the world the responsibility of this international organization with the challenges faced by whales and biodiversity in the 21st century. But the whaling block, in conjunction with poor management of the Chair, and the apathy of countries that call themselves `conservationists´ or like-minded, prevented the vote from taking place.

It all started in the morning session when it became clear that many countries that support the lifting of the moratorium on commercial whaling were absent from the room. There was a nervous sense of deja vu in the air among Commission members.

Eleven years ago the pro-whaling block led by Japan – a then member of the IWC – walked out of the room before the Commission voted on the sanctuary in order to break the quorum and prevent its creation by more than 75 percent of the Commission’s votes in support. They knew that the rules of procedure of this old international body are not clear in this regard and decided to unleash chaos, for as is well known “troubled waters, fisherman´s gain.”

And that is exactly what happened. The inexperience of the IWC Chairman at that time led him to determine that, under his interpretation, the quorum necessary to make decisions in the Commission is defined as countries `present´ in the room and not as countries that `attend´, or have credentials to participate in the meeting. Despite the disagreement expressed by the Buenos Aires Group, the lack of support from the so-called like-minded countries forced the proponents to withdraw the proposal. As a result, the opportunity to create the sanctuary was lost and a serious precedent was set. The consequences became evident last Thursday.

Eleven years later, seventeen countries did not appear in the room that day when the agenda item for the creation of the sanctuary was to be discussed. To say that they belong to the whaling block is inadequate because the reality is that only one of them, Iceland, conducts commercial whaling operations (a country that, by the way, should not even be formally recognized as a member of the IWC, but that is another story).

Antigua and Barbuda, Benin, Cambodia, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Kiribati, Laos, Liberia, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, Nauru, Palau, St. Lucia and Solomon Islands are rather part of the group of countries that have been related to the harpoon diplomacy implemented by Japan for decades through fisheries funding programs in exchange for their participation, support and votes at the IWC.

Unlike in 2011, this time the Commission had a previous experience and could have acted differently to achieve an urgent and necessary outcome in favor of the whales, especially considering that we are witnessing the worst biodiversity loss crisis since the last mass extinction. But no. Inexplicably, the IWC chair decided to follow the example of his inexperienced predecessor and applied the same criteria of eleven years ago, arguing that a precedent already existed. Protests from Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay came immediately after.

Argentina pointed out that under the Commission rules of procedure there was a quorum, so the sanctuary proposal should be put to a vote. Brazil expressed its strong opposition, arguing that a precedent is not a rule and that the Commission cannot continue to be subject to the blackmail and sabotage of some countries. And Uruguay described what happened as an offense and called for actions at the highest level to request an explanation from the sabotaging countries.

The indignation of the proponents was supported by the GBA. Colombia expressed its frustration and questioned the undemocratic way of making important decisions. Costa Rica stated that the IWC is hijacked by a group of countries whose interest in whaling is questionable because they do not even hunt whales. The Dominican Republic objected to the conservation objective of the Commission. Mexico expressed its humiliation at what happened. Ecuador regretted the situation. And Chile reiterated the need for the proposal to be put to a vote.

But the silence and indolence of the like-minded countries to the GBA’s continuous calls to its allies to bring the proposal to a vote ended up collapsing the hopes of creating a whale sanctuary in the South Atlantic. The Commission only committed to elaborate on a better definition of what quorum means at the next plenary meeting that will take place in Peru in two more years. A meeting that will be chaired by the commissioner of Guinea, one of the countries involved in the boycott of the Commission.

At this point, it has become clear how the representatives of Japan’s interests at the IWC will operate in 2024 if they do not like the proposal for a new definition of quorum. The question is, will like-minded countries continue to strengthen the path towards the deterioration of the Commission and the destruction of the achievements made by this international body in whale conservation?

By Elsa Cabrera, executive director of Cetacean Conservation Center and accredited observer to the IWC since 2001.


[1] Argentina, Brasil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, Ecuador, México, Panamá, Perú, República Dominicana y Uruguay