The Debate

Australia’s Whaling Victory

Australia has gained much more from its recent victory in the ICJ than the protection of whales.

Australia’s Whaling Victory
Credit: Minke whale via

A victory in a dispute over Japanese whaling operations has once again underlined the international presence Australia achieves through the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Australia has had an interesting history with international law’s highest court and looks likely to have an equally interesting future, with a case against Timor-Leste in progress. This latest success has indirectly produced a number of positive outcomes, some exclusive to Australia and others benefiting the international community.

First, the victory bolsters Australia’s presence and effectiveness within the context of international law. Unless your state is regularly bringing or defending cases before the court, experience with the ICJ is hard to come by, but Australia can boast a fairly successful track record. It helped force France to unilaterally declare the end of nuclear testing in the South Pacific (aboveground at any rate) in 1974, successfully argued that Nauru’s initial claim to phosphate lands had transformed in both substance and form throughout proceedings and thus was rendered inadmissible in 1992, and claimed another victory when it challenged the ICJ’s jurisdiction in its case against Portugal in 1993. The whaling victory only adds to that list and demonstrates again Australia’s legal prowess. In the case against Timor-Leste, Australia will benefit from its experience with the procedures and unique legal dimensions of the ICJ.

Second, the whaling case has been a significant addition to Australia’s international role and reputation. The Lowy Institute’s Michael Fullilove recently noted Australia’s ability to be an active player in world affairs, and its success in challenging Japan, a country that has its own experience with international legal issues, is evidence of this. Halfway through its term on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), Australia is chairing three of fifteen economic sanctions committees while preparing for its rotational presidency in November. Although the whaling case and the seat on the UNSC are expensive and time consuming engagements, they ultimately support Fullilove’s claim that Australia is in a higher weight class in the international relations ring than is commonly thought.

Third, the successful legal battle has demonstrated to a domestic Australian audience that projects initiated by previous governments can be successfully continued by new governments. At a time when mention of the carbon and mining taxes, budget management or offshore asylum seeker processing policies of the previous Labour government instantly ignites heated parliamentary debate, Australia’s decision to continue its case at the ICJ despite a change in government shows that a bipartisan approach can be effective, especially in foreign policy.

Fourth, Australia’s success benefits the international community. Not only has an important contemporary environmental topic been brought to the ICJ’s attention, the case touched on serious aspects of international law, including the principle of proportionality. More important was the manner in which Australia and Japan conducted themselves. By openly pledging to accept the court’s judgment before it was made, both states maintained good diplomatic relations, while Japan’s response to the ruling shows the role that international law can play in dispute resolution.

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Finally, the ICJ ruling helps to protect whales and the environment. The argument was that Japan’s whaling operations were not proportionate to the scientific research it claimed, and the ICJ’s decision ultimately made reference to the primary importance of preserving the species. The number of whales that could have been killed, the widespread ecological damage to international ecosystems, and the historical embarrassment of ignoring and allowing such actions to occur have all been avoided with the judge’s ruling. A positive outcome indeed.

Dominic Meoli is an intern at the Australian Institute of International Affairs and is currently undertaking a Master of Diplomacy and International Trade at Monash University.