What had seemed a quixotic effort to stop Japan’s Southern whaling program using international law is looking like a more even fight. In the oral proceedings underway for Australia’s challenge to Japan’s whaling program (JARPA II) at the International Court of Justice, Japan argues that—in a world of more than 7 billion people—cultural differences must be respected and the International Convention on the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) must be applied with a “margin of appreciation” for Japan’s interpretation of the treaty. (Australia notes that the concept of a margin of appreciation developed in the European Union Courts to allow states to fine-tune EU law according to national culture and social policy, and is not a rule of international law.)
According to Japan, it hunts whales to collect scientific information as permitted by an exception to the global moratorium on “harvesting” whales under the ICRW. Australia argues that JARPA II has no scientific basis or merit, and that Japan conducts it in the manner of a commercial venture, not scientific research; it quotes a statement made in the Japanese Diet vowing to use the scientific exception to continue whaling.
New Zealand, intervening as a party to the ICRW, stresses that the treaty was intended “to replace unilateral whaling with a system of collective regulation,” whether a state’s interest is in using whales or protecting them for their own sake. Japan’s actions, Australia argues, have in effect reduced its treaty obligations to facultative ones and so dissolved the treaty rights of all other treaty members.
Australia has decided not to make claims based on two other conventions, CITES and the Convention on Biodiversity mentioned in its application (for discussion of these, see Don Anton’s ASIL Insight).
The most interesting arguments have discussed the nature of scientific research and its relation to law. Japan argues that “the case concerns the legality of Japan’s activities under international law and not ethical values or the evaluation of good or bad science” and that the ICJ has no role in evaluating JARPA II. It has submitted very little by way of scientific evidence to support the validity or productivity of the whaling program.
In contrast, Australia and New Zealand emphasize that the questions before the Court are straightforward and offer the Court a number of criteria to assess whether JARPA II is scientific research. These include the lack of peer review of JARPA II, the arbitrary determination of sample sizes (i.e., the number of whales to be killed each year), and the insistence on lethal methods. The presentation and cross-examination of experts is a highlight of the video; a great change from the criticized approach to experts in the Pulp Mills case. The judges’ numerous questions indicate that they are interested in the scientific arguments, and not deferential to Japan’s claim of right to determine unilaterally whether JARPA II is, in fact, research.
Although killing whales—particularly endangered species such as humpback and fin whales, both of which are included in Japan’s whaling program—is an issue of grave concern to many states and nongovernmental organizations, only New Zealand has intervened and the ICJ has not invited amicus briefs or expert opinion from non-parties.
The jurisdictional issue has received scant attention. It is possible that the Court may, in the end, accept Japan’s argument that it does not have jurisdiction. While that may change the dynamic of the conflict over whaling, there are still many political avenues where it will continue to play out. Although anti-whaling activists have thwarted the whalers in recent years—acknowledged in the Japanese oral argument—Japan’s Institute of Cetacean Research has retaliated with a lawsuit in U.S. court and won a favorable decision in the 9th Circuit.
A decision is expected from the ICJ by the end of the year around the time the next whaling season will begin. The oral proceedings will continue with Japan’s second round of oral argument on 15 July: live and archived webcasts and transcripts are available. It provides an exceptional opportunity to watch many of the great international litigators, including Laurence Boisson de Chazournes, at work.