IWC wrap up: too busy disagreeing to save any whales.

Posted by Willie — 18 July 2011 at 4:18pm - Comments

The contentious thing at this year’s International Whaling Committee (IWC) annual meeting wasn’t whaling, but 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 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, for 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? 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 three days (after many ‘points of order’, ‘questions of clarification’, and a bit of filibustering) to agree 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, (members of the 14 nation Buenos Aires Group), and was a proposal they'd first suggested a 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'd leave the meeting and make it technically inquorate – reduce the number of nations present, so no official vote or decision 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 while 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'd try to 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.
But there is hope! (I have to keep telling myself that.) Because the proposals from the UK that were ultimately agreed by consensus by all 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, amid the morasse of nonsense, there's at least some good news from the IWC. While it may seem modest and unassuming, it's nonetheless a great achievement by the UK delegation ably led by minister Richard Benyon.

From this meeting it seems quite clear that there's still a long way to go to drag the IWC into the 21st Century, and for them to start focusing on the real issues - namely conserving the world’s remaining whale populations, particularly those that are most endangered. Instead, they've spent another year pointlessly arguing about processes, and making concessions to appease pro-whaling delegations.

Find out more about Greenpeace's work on whaling:

>> UK in the spotlight as global whale conference comes to Jersey

>> Are whales negotiable for our new government?

>> Failed whales: status quo remains at IWC

>> Why Greenpeace won't compromise on commercial whaling

>> Japan's sordid vote-buying on whaling exposed

About Willie

Hi, I'm Willie, I work with Greenpeace on all things ocean-related

Twitter: @williemackenzie

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