U.N. Top Court Rules Japan Must Stop Whale Hunts

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Japanese Fishermen hose down a 9.95m Baird's Beaked whale at Wada Port on June 21, 2007 in Chiba, Japan.
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The United Nations' top court—the International Court of Justice—has ruled that Japan must stop its whale hunts in the waters of the Antarctic. This is a battle that has been brewing between the Japanese and anti-whaling activists for decades.

Until recently, Japan had argued that their annual whale hunt fell under the category of scientific research, but the U.N. court has rejected that argument in a 12-4 judgement, ordering Japan to immediately "revoke all whaling permits" and not issue any new ones under the country's existing research program.

Nori Shikata, a spokesman for the Japanese Delegation from The Hague, and Phillip Hoare, author of "Leviathan or The Whale" and director of three films for BBC's Whale Night, weigh in on the ruling and its impact.

"We are disappointed and regret that the court ruled that our scientific research program in the Antarctic did not fall within the special permit article of the Convention," says Shikata, referring to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW). "However, Japan will abide by the judgement of the court as a state that places great importance on international legal order and the rule of law on the basis of international community."

In its ruling, the International Court of Justice citied concerns that Japan's program was not producing a significant amount of scientific results under the rubric of research, something Shikata says the nation was attempting to do.

"We have been trying to provide the results of the scientific research," he says, adding that under the ICRW, Japan's program is categorized as a scientific committee. "However, the court has made a judgement and we will abide by it. We have been making the case from our view point, and some of the arguments we made at the court were not accepted. However, it is very important to commit ourselves to international law and rule of law."

Hoare says that the decision by the court doesn't stop much, adding that the ruling is merely a temporary halt to this Japanese program specifically in the Southern Ocean—Japan and other nations can continue hunting whales in the Arctic Ocean in the Northern Hemisphere and elsewhere across the globe.

"But many more whales are dying around the world as we speak from other causes—from anthropogenic causes, from pollution, from bycatch, from ship strikes in American waters and British waters," says Hoare. "I kind of think sometimes this focus on the Japanese whaling program, it's a smokescreen from, I'm afraid, our own guilt."

Hoare adds that perspective is often missing from the debate around this Japanese whaling program.

"I think sometimes a lot of context is lost in this debate," he says. "The Japanese cultural claim to whaling is very shaky anyway. They really didn't begin commercial whaling until the 20th century, and in fact were encouraged to do so by the Allied Powers—by General MacArthur after the Second World War. We dropped atomic bombs on them, reduced them to starvation, and then turned a decommissioned Japanese Navy into a whaling fleet to go out and hunt whales to feed their starving population. This is partly why it irks them now to be told that they're not allowed to whale. They also feel that fish are next."

Hoare says that while the ruling is good news and may deter other nations from commercial whaling, there are so many other threats to whales and fish that this ruling will have minimal impact. For this entire program, Hoare says the Japanese's annual quota was 135 whales, a small number when comparing things globally. 

"I'd like to see a lot more effort put into a lot of the other effects that we're having on whales," he says. "Sperm Whales are probably the most polluted animal on the planet, partly because they're at the top of the food chain and everything ends up in them—all of the PCBs, all of the gamma chlordanes, all the stuff we've pumped into the ocean historically, which is still there and moving through them. The fact that these animals go past chemical plants emitting chromium, which causes rampant lung cancer in human beings, is causing birth defects analogous to Down Syndrome in Sperm Whales. There are many, many aspects of what we're doing that effect whales."