- Japan and other pro-whaling nations only narrowly lost several votes at this year's meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC); the closest run since commercial whaling bas banned in 1986. Anti-whalers claim that the close vote is due to Japan "buying" the votes of new and poor IWC members such as Cameroon, Togo and The Gambia and call for diplomatic sanctions.
Each year, the IWC gets new and exotic members. At this year's meeting in Ulsan, South Korea, a total of 66 member nations are presented and all have one vote in the Commission. This year's newcomers include the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru and three African countries. Australia, which heads the anti-whaling block, claims these new members are paid for by Japan to vote for a lifting of the commercial whaling ban.
Indeed, many of the relatively new IWC members are poor African, Caribbean or Pacific nations receiving a fair amount of Japanese development aid. Five years ago, Atherton Martin - then Fisheries Minister of the small Caribbean state Dominica - resigned in protest over Japan's "extortionary tactics", which he claimed linked a pro-whaling vote to considerable Japanese development aid for Dominica's fisheries sector.
According to environmentalists and the Australian government, this is the background for the many poor countries recently joining the IWC. Susan Lieberman of the environmental group WWF this week criticised the wave of new countries entering the Commission - most of them being landlocked and without any whaling history - as an "absurdity".
Poorer African nations that have joined the IWC recently are thus generally viewed as being cheaply bought with Japanese development projects. Sub-Saharan newcomers include Benin, Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Gabon, The Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania and Togo. South Africa, Kenya and Senegal have a longer history with the IWC.
Japan however strongly denies that it connects a pro-whaling vote to its development aid, as does Norway, the second most important whaling nation. Decisions over Japan's development aid programmes are made in other agencies than those working with whaling, the government repeatedly has claimed. The argument however finds little international credibility.
The anti-whaling camp, on the other hand, largely admits that it is muzzling poor countries into taking a parallel stand. According to 'The Australian', the Canberra government today openly threatened Nauru "with diplomatic action over its stand at the IWC." Australia claims Nauru had joined the IWC amidst promised of "increased development aid," while forgetting that Australian aid was more important to the small nation.
Australian Environment Minister Senator Ian Campbell visited a large number of Pacific states to "persuade" them to vote against whaling. In desperately poor Solomon Islands, Prime Minister Allan Kemakeza promised Mr Campbell to vote against Japan after he was made to understand that another stand threatened to "damage [the country's] good relationships with Australia."
This year and last year, a long list of landlocked European countries without any whaling history has entered the IWC, hyping up the anti-whaling vote. These included Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. According to environmentalists, however, there was nothing suspicious about their interest in the IWC, these countries being democracies where the population was against whaling.
The IWC conference in Ulsan is still ongoing and more votes are to be made until it closes on Friday. Anti-whalers hope that the current power balance is maintained during the last few days. If the representatives of Mali, Togo and The Gambia - who still have not arrived South Korea - enter the conference tomorrow, Japan may however be able to score some victories.
As the annual IWC meetings are becoming more polarised between the pro-Japan and pro-Australia blocks, many observers are wondering where the issue of whale conservation got lost on the way. The IWC's Scientific Commission for years has cleared several non-threatened whale species for limited and regulated hunting while proposing a total ban for commercial and "scientific" hunting on other, threatened species. But scientific conclusions have not been the issue at IWC conferences for years.
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