Ropes bind the flukes of a slaughterd whale to a Japanese whale poaching ship in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. Photo: Sea Shepherd

By Andrew Darby, Hobart correspondent for Fairfax Media
25 June 2013

(Sydney Morning Herald) – When Australia first went to court against Japan over whaling, it was against clear warnings from anti-whaling allies.

The US commissioner at the International Whaling Commission, Monica Medina, called it a ''bet the whales'' case - an uncertain gamble on whales' lives.

If defeated, it would make all conservation-minded countries losers, Ms Medina said.

New Zealand's former prime minister, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, also opposed it.  A wily diplomatic negotiator, Sir Geoffrey said the case could do more harm than good, and warned Wellington to tread carefully in any involvement.

But even as these key figures were speaking, it was clear that their own hard-fought attempts at a negotiated settlement with whaling countries were exhausted.

Australia went a long way, too, in those IWC talks trying to agree with Japan on a phase-out of its Antarctic hunt. Eventually Canberra could go no further.

So on Wednesday, three years after the case was lodged, we meet our otherwise good friend in the International Court of Justice at The Hague.

The stakes are clearly high.  If Australia wins, Japan must be counted on to stop all Antarctic whaling. If Australia loses, Japan could claim its whaling has an over-riding legitimacy it now lacks.

Why is this case worth the risk?

Back when he was environment minister in the Howard government, now Coalition communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull talked about this disagreement between friends.

Friendship had many obligations, Mr Turnbull said. ''And one obligation of friendship is to be honest with each other.''

Australia says that such a conspicuous abuse of international law as Japan's scientific whaling is dishonest. Successive governments and ministers have held to this line.

Most recently Environment Minister Tony Burke called Japanese Fisheries Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi's claim, that whaling was a question of food security, a concession that the hunt had nothing to do with science.

''It's significant for them to have abandoned any pretence of a so-called scientific reason,'' Mr Burke said.

As the case is argued over the next four weeks, Australia will ask the ICJ's 16 judges to find Japan wrong too. Australia will argue that Japan is contravening the intent and practice of the lethal hunt rule in the global treaty on whaling; it is instead conducting commercial whaling in a whale sanctuary.

Japan's response is expected to be an attempt to throw the case out - to say that it's beyond the ICJ's jurisdiction. [more]

Whaling case worth the gamble

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