Japan fails to take control of whaling commission

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Conservationists around the world breathed a sigh of relief last night when Japan, the leading pro-whaling nation, narrowly failed in its attempt to gain control of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and so start challenging the international commercial whaling ban.

The Japanese lost a key vote at the IWC annual meeting at St Kitts and Nevis in the West Indies, after fears that it had built up a voting majority.

Japan has spent a decade securing votes of IWC member states with foreign aid packages, and had brought three new supporting states into the IWC this year - Cambodia, Guatemala and the Marshall Islands.

But when the first vote of the meeting was taken, on a Japanese proposal to end all discussion in the IWC of the fate of dolphins, porpoises and small whales, Japan and its supporters could only muster 30 votes, while 32 countries voted against. One country, Denmark, abstained.

At least two countries expected to vote on Japan's side, Senegal and Guatemala, had not arrived at the meeting by the time the vote was held.

Furthermore, Israel has this year joined the IWC on the side of the anti-whaling nations, led by the UK, the US, Australia and New Zealand. However, further votes were due later last night and it was still possible that a Japanese majority might be achieved. Such a result would be a tremendous propaganda coup for the Japanese and the other countries determined to continue hunting the great whales, principally Norway and Iceland.

A simple majority would not allow the scrapping of the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling - that requires a majority of 75 per cent. But it would permit the Japanese and their allies to take important steps towards that end, such as the introduction of secret ballots in the IWC, which would mean that countries supporting whaling could not be identified.

The Japanese and the Norwegians in particular have never accepted the moratorium and have continued to hunt whales every year. While the Norwegians have openly refused to accept the ban, the Japanese have adopted the pretence that their whaling is for "scientific" purposes. But this is regarded everywhere as a sham, and the meat from the whales the Japanese catch is sold on the open market. This year Japanese boats hunted nearly 1,000 minke whales in the Southern Ocean, and the Norwegians are hunting a similar number this summer.

Last night anti-whaling campaigners expressed relief at the initial sign that the Japanese majority was still some way off. Mike Townsley of Greenpeace International said the result was "encouraging, but not conclusive".

Speaking on behalf of the Whalewatch coalition, Peter Davies, the director general of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, said: "We have shown that even when faced with the greatest of challenges, the welfare and protection of whales can still persevere. But the world must wake up from its deep slumber - the world's whales and their welfare remain hanging in the balance. Governments must now fight fiercely to prevent a hostile takeover by the pro-whaling nations."