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Japan Ties Its Own Hands in Withdrawing from the IWC

Tags: Whaling , International Organizations , Fishery

Komatsu, Masayuki

January 21, 2019

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On December 26, 2018, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga announced Japan’s withdrawal from the International Whaling Commission, citing the IWC’s refusal to honor its pledge—in spite of Japan’s persistent efforts—to review the moratorium on commercial whaling by 1990 at the latest. Suga added that Japan would resume commercial whaling from July 2019 in its territorial sea and exclusive economic zone but cease whaling activities in the Antarctic Ocean and the Southern Hemisphere.

At the same news conference, Suga announced that Japan would also withdraw from the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW). This means that Japan would lose all privileges and rights that the treaty had accorded and may have even bigger consequences than leaving the IWC. While Japan will no longer be bound by the moratorium on commercial whaling that the IWC adopted in 1982, it will be deprived of the right to continue with scientific whaling—in accordance with the Convention’s Article 8—not only in the Southern Ocean, which it currently conducts, but also in the Northwest Pacific. Because it will forfeit all rights of the ICRW, there is even the risk that Japan could be charged with violating the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Japan could have chosen to withdraw from the IWC but remain a signatory to the ICRW, which would have enabled it to continue scientific whaling in the Southern Ocean and the Northwest Pacific. This would have allowed Japan to continue contributing to scientific research into maritime resource management and the ocean ecosystem while resuming commercial whaling in its 200-nautical-mile EEZ. Unfortunately, Japan has yet to provide any details of its intended activities in its EEZ nor its future vision for sustainable whaling.

Article 65 of UNCLOS explicitly states that in the case of cetaceans, states shall “work through the appropriate international organizations for their conservation, management and study.” Japan’s withdrawal from the IWC and ICRW could thus be criticized as bypassing “appropriate international organizations,” and antiwhaling countries may take Japan to court for violating not only UNCLOS but also the Convention on Biological Diversity—even if commercial whaling is limited to territorial waters.

Japan will no doubt come under criticism from foreign governments and NGOs for illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing and for undermining the international fishery management framework. This could weaken Japan’s arguments for tougher regulations on the fishing of saury, mackerel, and sardines by China, South Korea, Taiwan, and the European Union on the Pacific high seas.

Had Japan remained a party to the ICRW and pledged to continue pursuing sustainable whaling based on scientific evidence, it would have had a much stronger argument regarding the “unfairness” of the commercial whaling moratorium. It would have been able to prevent antiwhaling states from asserting that Japan is violating international conventions and frameworks. Even if charges are then brought to international courts, such as the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), Japan may—by drawing on the lessons of its 2000 victory in the Arbitral Tribunal over Southern bluefin tuna and the 2014 defeat in the International Court of Justice over whaling—have been able to present a persuasive case around the fact that the promised lifting of the commercial whaling moratorium had remained unfilled for 29 years.

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