Conservationists applauded, the Australian government was conciliatory and the Japanese put on a brave a face after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) demanded an immediate end to Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean.
The ICJ backed Australian legal action claiming that Japanese whaling was not for scientific purposes, a claim the Japanese have used for the continued hunting of minke, fin, sei, Bryde’s, sperm and humpback whales.
More than 10,000 minke whales alone have been taken from Antarctica’s Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary each year since 1988, with Japanese whalers, alongside their peers in Iceland and Norway, thumbing their noses at an international moratorium on whaling imposed two years earlier.
The sanctuary, covering 50 million square kilometers around Antarctica, was established by the International Whaling Commission in 1994 with the support of 23 countries. Tokyo opposed it and carried on whaling under a loophole that allowed biological research.
ICJ president Peter Tomka said scientific permits granted by Japan for its whaling program were not for scientific research as defined under International Whaling Commission rules.
He noted that “Japan has not acted in conformity with its obligations.”
The decision by the UN’s top court was announced after the court voted 12 to four in favor of legal action, claiming Japan had not acted in compliance with its obligations under the international whaling convention.
He then ordered an end to whaling permits in the Southern Ocean. The Japanese Foreign Ministry said it “regrets and is deeply disappointed” by the ruling.
Unprecedented legal action was initiated in 2010 with the help of then Australian Environment Minister Peter Garrett, the first of its kind by a country intending to put a stop to whaling. Garrett said the decision was “an incredible result.”
New Zealand also joined the lawsuit in 2012.
Australian Attorney-General George Brandis said the decision would not damage ties between Australia and Japan, which he described as excellent, adding: “Both countries will respect and accept the decision.”
Prime Minister Tony Abbott will visit Japan next week.
Chief Japanese negotiator, Koji Tsuruoka, said Tokyo would comply with the decision. “As a responsible member of the global community, Japan will abide by the decision of the court,” he said.
Conservationists also hailed the decision.
Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, said the decision had vindicated the group’s often controversial and confrontational actions at sea.
“I am so pleased that after a decade of anti-whaling campaigns in the Antarctic and Southern Ocean, we won’t have to go there again,” he told Fairfax Media in Australia.
“We feel vindicated, this has always been an illegal whale hunt, I’ve always felt that way and for the the International Court of Justice to agree and for people to see that this has been the right thing to pursue, well, that’s just great.”
Several species of whales were driven to the brink of extinction after two centuries of extensive hunting. Australia banned commercial whaling in 1979 and has opposed whaling for scientific purposes in equal doses ever since.
Despite the ICJ ruling, some in the Japanese camp were maneuvering to safeguard their income. Nori Shikata, spokesman for the Japanese Delegation at ICJ, said it was possible that Japanese whaling would continue in the northern regions of the Pacific Ocean.
“Our program in the Northern Pacific is outside the scope of the proceedings before the courts and so there are two separate programs and this ruling is about the program in the Antarctic,” Shikata told Australian Radio.
“What we have been saying today is that, as far as the judgement of the court is concerned, we will abide by it.”
Analysts said if Japan chose to ignore the ruling it could incur the wrath of the United Nations Security Council. Tokyo could also withdraw from associated maritime conventions on six months’ notice; however, they stressed this remained highly unlikely.
The ruling cannot be appealed and was expected to have a significant impact on Norway and Iceland, which continue to hunt whales in the name of biological research. Both countries claim it is a right granted under Freedom of the Seas, a convention dating back to the 17th century. Further court cases are expected to follow with legal precedents now set in the ICJ.
Both countries were said to be examining the decision but had so far declined to comment.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt