TOKYO — The decision to ban Japan’s annual whaling drive off Antarctica, handed down by the United Nations’ highest court on Monday, was a hard-won victory for conservationists who long argued that Tokyo’s whaling research was a cover for commercial whaling.
The ruling by the International Court of Justice in The Hague halts a Japanese program that has captured more than 10,000 minke and other whales in the Southern Ocean each year since 1988 in the name of biological research.
Japan may not be ready to lay down its harpoons entirely. Though the ruling is final, it allows the Japanese to continue to hunt whales under a redesigned program, said Nanami Kurasawa, who heads a marine conservation group in Tokyo.
And the court’s decision does not affect smaller hunts that Japan carries out in the northern Pacific, or coastal whaling carried out on a smaller scale by local fishermen.
“It’s an important decision, but it also leaves the Japanese government a lot of leeway,” Ms. Kurasawa said. “The Japanese government could start research whaling again but under a different name, and it would be out of the ruling’s purview.”
In a 12-to-4 judgment, the court found that Japan was in breach of its international obligations by catching and killing minke whales and issuing permits for hunting humpback and fin whales within the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, established by the International Whaling Commission.
Reading a summary of the judgment, the presiding judge, Peter Tomka of Slovakia, said that the latest Japanese program, which was expanded in 2005, had involved the killing of thousands of minke whales and a number of fin whales, but that its “scientific output to date appears limited.” The ruling suggested that Japan’s whaling hunt was based on politics and logistics, rather than science.
Lawyers attending the proceedings said there was a gasp among the audience when Judge Tomka ordered Japan to immediately “revoke all whaling permits” and not issue any new ones under the existing program.
“I rarely heard such an unequivocal, strong ruling at this court,” said a lawyer with long experience at the court who asked not to be named because he is working on a case in progress.
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