Japan buys votes to take control of whaling body

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Japan has succeeded in buying the votes that will give it control of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) later this week, in a major step towards bringing back commercial hunting of whales.

The pro-whaling nation has gained the support of three more small countries to give it a definite majority in the IWC, and so begin in earnest its attack on the international whaling moratorium which has been in force for 20 years.

Its takeover of the IWC - likely to become clear on Friday - will be a major reverse for the international environmental movement, which has long thought that the fight for one of its iconic causes - Save the Whale - had been largely won.

It will be a considerable propaganda victory not only for the Japanese, but also for other nations who are determined to continue whale hunting in spite of international opinion, principally Norway and Iceland.

But Japan has done all the work. It marks the climax of a 10-year campaign of using substantial foreign aid packages to persuade small countries - often with no whaling tradition, or even a coastline - to join the IWC and vote on the Japanese side. While the world has been looking the other way, the pro-Japan vote has built up over the years towards a controlling figure. The Japanese thought they had secured a 51 per cent majority last year but some of their allies did not turn up to vote at the IWC meeting in Ulsan, South Korea.

At this year's meeting in St Kitts and Nevis in the West Indies, there is likely to be no such slip-up. Japan has persuaded three more small nations - Guatemala, Cambodia and the Marshall Islands - to join the IWC as its voting allies.

Their applications for membership are being processed by the State Department in the United States, which is the "depository nation" for the IWC, as the treaty setting up the commission was signed in America.

After their membership is confirmed, there will be 37 member states likely to vote with Japan and 30 on the anti-whaling side.

The anti-whaling states, led by Britain, the US, Australia and New Zealand, and known in the IWC as the "like-minded" nations, have tried in the past few months to organise a counter-offensive. There were hopes that Slovenia, Croatia and Israel could be persuaded to join their side - but it has not happened.

Japan's 51 per cent majority will not enable it to scrap the 1986 commercial whaling moratorium. For that it needs a majority of 75 per cent.

But it will enable it to make major changes in the IWC, such as stopping all its conservation work, stopping all discussions of animal welfare in relation to whaling, promoting the trade in whale products and reshaping the organisation in a more pro-whaling fashion.

It will also allow the Japanese to get resolutions passed approving their so-called scientific whaling - the commercial whaling in disguise that the Japanese have resolutely continued since the ban. (This year they have been hunting nearly 1,000 minke whales in the Southern Ocean.)

In the face of continuing worldwide criticism, the Japanese are anxious for such resolutions to give their hunt some international legitimacy, although their pretence of killing the animals for research fools no one - the meat is sold commercially.

But perhaps most significantly, the majority vote will enable the introduction of secret ballots in the IWC - where voting is open. This would ensure that Japan's vote-buying could no longer be tracked, and would open the way for more countries to join the Japanese in their quest to have the moratorium overturned.