The courtroom at the International Court of Justice in The Hague in the Netherlands is a long way from the Antarctic. It is a beautiful room with enormous stained glass windows, twelve feet up from the floor, but this is where the future of the Antarctic whales will be decided in front of a long row of 16 judges in black robes and white scarves.
After repeated requests from the world community, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) agreed to a moratorium on commercial whaling that came into effect in 1986.
Despite this international whaling moratorium Japan continues to catch these amazing marine mammals in the Antarctic in the name of scientific research but all necessary research on these whales can be done by non-lethal means.
The meat from the hunts is largely going into storage because demand for whale meat has plunged to record lows; the industry has two years worth of frozen whale meat in storage that it is struggling to sell.
Already on the first day this was shaping up as a conflict over basic principles, not just lawyers arguing over words. Australia has framed the issue as one of stasis vs. change. Does the IWC remain locked to an exact reading of what was written in 1946 or does it adapt and change with the times, adopting modern interpretations of old words?
Australia has done its homework on this case and is taking the line that if you allow Japan’s interpretation of Article 8 – which is a rule written in 1946 which allows any member to catch as many whales as it sees fit as long as they are caught for scientific purposes – then regulation of whaling becomes impossible. They pointed out that if every IWC member allocated itself an Article 8 quota the same size as Japan's that would mean a take of over 80,000 minke whales a year. I wish I'd thought of that.
This hearing started on Wednesday and will go on for 3 weeks and the judgment is not expected until the end of the year. It's hard to predict how it will come out. Japan might lose, it might win or the court might order Japan to limit its program in some way but not to end it. But Australia has made a strong start. At the end of the day my colleague who is a legal expert, said to me: 'I think Australia will win.' I hope she is right. TO BE CONTINUED...
John Frizell is an Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace International.