'We want to be part of your club, but don’t want to play by your rules'

Feature story - 14 October, 2002
Whalers won a victory at a special meeting of the International Whaling Commission when Iceland was voted in as a full member despite their admission they will not follow all the rules of the commission and will begin whaling by 2006.

Iceland stopped commercial whaling shortly after the international ban in 1986, but they say they will start again by 2004.

This special meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) began with a victory for whalers as Iceland squeaked by with just enough votes to become a full member of the commission. But unlike most members of the IWC, Iceland won't be bound to the commercial whaling ban because they joined with a reservation.

Iceland does not accept the current IWC moratorium on commercial whaling because the government's ratification papers to the convention include a reservation to the ban since it came into affect in 1986.

Iceland stopped whaling but left the IWC in protest after the moratorium was agreed. They have been trying to get back in ever since.

And now Iceland says it will resume whaling in 2006 catching Fin and Minke whales.

So how can a country join an international convention without being bound by its rules?

Richard Page, a Greenpeace oceans campaigner believes this will seriously undermine the credibility of the commission and sets a highly damaging precedent. "What is to stop other countries leaving the IWC and rejoining with objections to decisions they don't like?" said Page.

Why did the commission agree to this?

Whaling nations are reaping the rewards of the Government of Japan's vote buying strategy. Of the nineteen votes cast in favour of Iceland's rejoining with a reservation, nine were from countries whose position in the IWC is directly linked to their receipt of fisheries grant aid from Japan.

In fact, this special meeting is being held to settle the score between the Japanese government and the US and Russian governments over subsistence whaling by the countries' indigenous people.

The US and Russian indigenous people who hunt whales for subsistance do not fall under the IWC's moratorium on commercial whaling and quotas. These are based on scientific advice and are usually agreed by consensus. However, at the May IWC meeting, the Japanese government tried to link the joint Russian/ US aboriginal subsistance quota to a commercial quota for its own whalers and then used its bloc of bought votes to block the subsistence quota when its own commercial request was not granted.

"The Fisheries Agency of Japan was clearly attempting to blackmail the US by using the vote bought countries to block the aboriginal quota," said Page. "They have said they will allow the quota to pass at this meeting, but there is no guarantee that the Fisheries Agency won't employ this tactic at future meetings."

The Government of Japan is set on buying a return to commercial whaling and today's victory accepting Iceland into the commission will strengthen their pro-whaling bloc. Unless action is taken to stop vote buying, they may succeed in overturning the whaling ban.

Next month they will get another chance to weaken regulation on the trade in whale products. The Japanese government's vote buying offensive may spread into other conservation bodies. Japan has proposed that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) should end its ban on trade in whale products and has called for a vote at the next CITES meeting in being held in Chile.