The contentious thing at this year’s meeting of the International Whaling Committee (IWC) meeting wasn’t whaling, bizarrely it was the issue of ‘consensus’.

Despite having worked on this issue for a number of years, this was my first time attending an annual IWC meeting. I had heard from colleagues often about just how dysfunctional the meetings were, and with experience of other international meetings, like ICCAT, I thought I knew what to expect.

But in reality it’s hard to find words to adequately describe the farrago. There are some 89 countries who are members of the IWC. They haven’t all paid their membership, so they don’t all turn up. Oddly, some who haven’t paid still turn up and take part, making interventions and speaking on issues if they like, since the only thing they can’t do is vote.

Equally oddly, there hasn’t been a vote on any issue in an IWC meeting for a number of years. So there seems to be little reason why you’d bother paying up – which may explain why some 21 member countries are in arrears.

Why no voting? Well, because there is a pervasive view that we should strive to agree everything by ‘consensus’. In theory this leads to less acrimony, and less entrenched positions. In reality, consensus means giving concessions on conservation.

This year’s meeting, on the face of it, didn’t seem to achieve much. It took some three days (after many ‘points of order’, ‘questions of clarification’, and a bit of filibustering)  to agree some changes proposed by the UK on how the IWC operates, leaving the final day for the discussion of everything-else-on-the-agenda. Included in that agenda was the creation of a whale sanctuary in the South Atlantic. This was passionately proposed by Brazil and Argentina, and was a proposal they had first suggested a whole decade ago, the last time the IWC was hosted in the British Isles. There was clearly a majority in support for the sanctuary in the room – but when Brazil and Argentina said that they would push the issue to a vote, a bizarre pantomime began. Japan, speaking ‘on behalf’ of the pro-whaling countries said that they would leave the meeting and make it technically inquorate – so no vote could take place.

And then they did just that. Japan’s delegation, along with those of its pro-whaling allies got up and walked out. That meant the meeting was effectively put on hold whilst the various commissioners, and secretariat tried to work out what to do. On the last day of business, with lots of business still left to do, the meeting was stopped for EIGHT hours.

What was achieved in that eight hours was even more insulting to the delegates, observers, and everyone who had funded their attendance, or anyone who cares about (whale) conservation. All that could be agreed was a page of text explaining what had happened, why it was unresolved, and that they would try and work out what to do about it by next year’s meeting!

That meant everything else that hadn’t been discussed was also postponed for a year.

Pretty abysmal when it comes to any effective international action on whale conservation, on the whole.

But there is hope (I have to keep telling myself that!) because the proposals from the UK that were ultimately agreed by consensus by attending governments should pave the way to cleaning up how the IWC works. It will mean an end to the ability to turn up with a wad of cash on the day to pay your country’s fees, and it should also lead to an overall increase in transparency. That can only be good news for the IWC, and everyone who wants to be properly represented in these meetings by their governments.

So, amidst the morasse of nonsense, there is at least some good news from the IWC, and whilst it may seem modest and unassuming, it is nonetheless a great achievement by the UK delegation ably led by minister Richard Benyon.

From this meeting it seems quite clear that there is still a long way to go to drag the IWC kicking and screaming into the 21st Century, and be able to start focusing on the real issues – namely conserving the world’s remaining whale populations, particularly those that are most endangered – rather than pointlessly arguing about processes, and making concessions to appease pro-whaling delegations.