The Velvet Glove Gives Whales The Velvet ‘Finger’

On the final day of the meeting of the IWC, Latin American nations Brazil and Argentina’s joint proposal to establish the South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary was presented and debated on the plenary floor, invoking comments from commissioners representing 28 countries (comments can be reviewed in a previous post), setting the stage for a showdown and confirming – yet again – that the IWC is an utterly polarized and irreparably dysfunctional organization that cannot seem to get out of its own way.

By the end of the comment session, it was obvious that adopting the proposal by consensus didn’t stand an ice cube’s chance in Hell.  Nevertheless, Chair Oosthuizen implored commissioners once again to set aside their differences and try to reach consensus.  Palau’s commissioner only yesterday boasted that “the Pacific way” of problem-solving was based on a solid foundation of consensus building. So it was more than a little frustrating when the distinguished commissioner from Palau responded to the Chair’s request by stating that, (if there is a vote) “still we will vote ‘no’, but will not stand in the way of consensus”, sending a message to a nameless maestro that he awaited direction and was ‘on standby’.

On cue, the opposition made their stand.  Commissioner Valentin Ilyashenko (Russian Federation), never one to dance around an issue, stated, “We said that this proposal was destroying the process of the “Future of IWC”.  We do not want to break the consensus, but we would not like to vote.”  Tomas Heidar (Iceland) followed suite with all the subtlety of a bulldozer, making it abundantly clear where he stood on the issue – “We spoke clearly about our opinion.  We will block efforts of consensus.  We would prefer not to vote.”

Such a charmer.

Commissioner Devan Joseph (St Kitts and Nevis) must have exhausted himself from the previous day’s histrionics.  His astute observation on this important proposal was simply, “Our views are the same as Iceland’s” – the IWC equivalent of “What he said.” Cameroonian  Commissioner Baba Malloum Ousman gave the North African countries their cue by adding, “We believe that this item should remain open and support Iceland’s statement.”

By now, the tension in the room brought on by this display of international brinksmanship was palatable.  The strategy was calculated and clear; the stage was set and lines were drawn from the bottom of the pro-whaling ranks to the top.  Up to this point, Japan made no opposing statements – it wasn’t necessary; other pro-whaling nations were doing the heavy-lifting, and that would have been to0 coarse and boorish; Japan’s delegation is much too savvy and calculating to show its  hand so early in the game.

But now the time had come…

In a calm, professional, and almost apologetic tone, Japan’s Alternate Commissioner Joji Morishita made the statement that killed the rest of the day, and sunk a deal for whales in the South Atlantic.

“I ask for the floor not as a delegate of Japan, but I believe I am speaking on behalf of countries advocating the sustainable use of whales and explain our position, so that there will be no surprise and no complication.  I would like to ask your indulgence if I take more than two minutes.  We do understand the importance of the proposal in front of us and the significance of the proposal to the proponents because we have had the same situation in our small-type whaling program for a long time.  Yesterday, we achieved a wonderful, positive outcome, and today we passed a resolution by Japan on “Safety at Sea”.  We think it’s important in this organization to keep this trust-building exercise.  One thing different from their position is that we believe that voting will damage the very good atmosphere we have established, and might trigger a landslide of many votes for next year which might disrupt the progress we have made.  But there are some votes that have significant histories and background.  We see that if a vote takes place, there will be unfortunate, negative effects.  We would like to avoid voting as much as possible.  And, we don’t like to take any hostile action, but the Sustainable Use Group is thinking about breaking the quorum if it’s called for a vote.  It’s better not to vote.  I understand that the quorum is a simple majority of the Commission.  If my calculation is correct, when the Sustainable Use Group counties leave this room, the quorum will be broken. This is not a hostile act, just a way to avoid voting.”

And with this, the always cool-under-duress Morishita slapped Brazil, Argentina, and other members of the ‘Buenos Aires Group’ (*) with his velvet glove, and gave whales the ‘velvet finger’.

In response to Morishita’s challenge, Brazilian Commissioner Marcus Henrique Paranaguá stated that, “Brazil, and the entire Buenos Aires Group, feels strongly about this issue.  I see no other way than to request a vote.  If requesting a vote in an international forum is perceived as ‘destroying the IWC’, then there is something seriously wrong with this process.”

Finally, somebody had the cheek to speak truth to power.

Chair Oosthuizen ruled that consensus could not be reached and directed Secretary Simon Brockington to prepare for the Commission’s first vote since 2008.  And with that, the delegations of twenty-two countries voted with their feet and left the Commission floor, breaking the simple majority quorum required for a vote.

Which countries collected their toys and stomped off the playground? 

Cambodia, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, the Gambia, Ghana, Grenada, Guinea-Bissau, Iceland, Japan, Kiribati, Korea, Mauritania, Mongolia, Morocco, Nauru, Norway, Palau, the Russian Federation, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, Togo, and Tuvalu.

And so began nine hours of waiting, while commissioners hunkered down behind closed doors in a Special Commissioners Meeting in an attempt to reach an acceptable compromise.  It didn’t happen.

When the Commission reconvened at 8:15 p.m. local time, the only definitive point that could be agreed upon was that the delegates “recognized the diversity of views within the Commission on the issue” – an understatement, to say the least.  The Commission did, however, agree to continue discussing the proposal and will likely be the first agenda item at next year’s meeting.

I imagine this last item will result in more than a few sleepless nights for U.S. Commissioner Monica Medina, judging by a comment she made to a BBC reporter that the potential vote “put a hand-grenade” under next year’s meeting.” (  The bowhead whale quota for Alaskan Native American subsistence hunts, so vigorously defended by the U.S., is scheduled for renewal during the 2012 meeting, and in the past it has been low-hanging fruit for Japan and the “Sustainable Use Group”, who use the occasion to gain concessions by threatening to hold the bowhead quota hostage by breaking consensus for passage.  Now, there will be a second contentious, high-stakes issue on the table during next year’s meeting.  The Latin American countries may very well press the issue – “No Sanctuary, No Quota!”

Everybody stands to gain something…. but at what price?

All compromise is based on give and take, but there can be no give and take on fundamentals. Any compromise on mere fundamentals is a surrender. For it is all give and no take.”  – Mohandas Gandhi

I am often asked by environmentally-conscious travelers about the most “cetacean-friendly” countries whose progressive marine conservation initiatives should be rewarded with tourists’ hard-earned holiday money.  You can bet I’ll be printing small cards with the names of the twenty-two census-blocking nations as a means of raising awareness among travelers about where NOT to spend their tourist dollars.  I hope you will join me in raising awareness about this important issue in international whale conservation.

*The Buenos Aires Group is a a coalition of 14 Latin American countries with “pro-whale” sentiments, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

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One Comment on “The Velvet Glove Gives Whales The Velvet ‘Finger’”

  1. Bernie Says:

    With this piece you clarify some of the more noteworthy pieces of information.
    Enjoyable to read through & inclusive of interesting info!

    Thanks for sharing The Velvet Glove Gives Whales The Velvet Finger | IWC: The World is Watching!

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