Oslo refuses to change tack on whales: A defiant PM tells Leonard Doyle Britain and the US are cynically opposing whaling to appear 'green'

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The Independent Online
THE Norwegian Prime Minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland, was adamant yesterday that the commercial hunt for minke whales will start again whatever the International Whaling Commission, meeting in Kyoto this week, decides. Soon Norway's whaling ships, which have lain idle but for limited 'scientific' whaling for the last four years, will be sent out again to kill up to 800 whales with explosive-tipped harpoons.

The hunt overwhelmingly supported by Norwegians sets the country on a collision course with the European Community, which it is trying to join, and with the US where sentiment to protect all whales runs high.

In an interview with the Independent, Mrs Brundtland spoke yesterday in emotional terms about the way 'big countries' with poor records on the environment were ganging up on Norway, one of the world's most environmentally correct nations. She singled out Britain and the US for what she called their cynical support for a total ban on whaling.

'Just because a whale looks different from a moose, a cow or a fox or any other animal, you cannot say that that specific animal should under no circumstances be used for human consumption,' she said.

'That has never been part of my thinking on ecology issues. What,' she asked, 'is the difference between the whale and any other animal?'

Mrs Brundtland acknowledged, however, that by defying the international clamour against whaling Norway's interests could be threatened whether by sanctions from the US or by moves against Norway's application to the EC. A majority of Norwegians are already opposed to EC membership and the whaling controversy could turn even more against it. 'There is a big question mark in many people's minds about what big nations - both within and outside the EC - are doing on this issue,' she said. 'And I think many people feel that we are being misused and treated in an unfair manner in less than good faith.'

Hunting the whale, a natural resource, would not be stopped just because radical environmentalists had created 'a myth' about the whale being 'a good animal', she said. Mrs Brundtland went on to criticise Britain and the US for giving special status to the whale, by putting it beyond the reach of hunters, saying that they were setting a dangerous precedent that in the long run would undermine the environmental movement.

The whaling industry contributes little to Norway's wealth, but whalers and their supporters in the far north have already caused considerable difficulties for Mrs Brundtland's Labour Party. Her decision to recommence whaling is motivated as much by her party's poor standing in the polls and the rising popularity of the socialist left and the centre party as by her convictions on sustainable environmental policy, Norwegian critics say. There is a general election in Norway in September and Mrs Brundtland's chances of remaining in government are already slim.

The opposition parties are campaigning against EC membership and both are strong in rural areas where the whaling issue has become embroiled in the debate over Norway's place in the Community.

Norway's whale hunt, once it begins, could also bring down American sanctions which under US law must be imposed on any nation that ignores international environmental agreements. Norway's application for EC membership would also be put in question since the hunt would conflict with the EC ban on trading in whale products and there is also the danger that the existing boycott of Norwegian goods might spread and do the country real economic harm.

Oslo decided in principle last year to allow its whalers to kill up to 800 minke whales a year - mostly for domestic consumption - and Mrs Brundtland gave no indication yesterday that she was considering a climbdown.

From her elegant 15th-floor office overlooking the Oslo fjord, she confessed that she was 'seriously concerned' for Norway's interests however and she spoke of 'the potential drama of what other nations are trying to do against a small nation like Norway'. Mrs Brundtland said that she did not believe sanctions would be applied against Norway or that its EC application would be hindered, but she showed deep concern for the future when she said: 'It is difficult to envisage that democratic nations would enter into such a dangerous procedure. I really doubt that democratic nations like the United States and Great Britain, our allies who have every reason to respect Norway, would do this.

'I feel very much concerned that because big nations have big problems in the environmental area which they do not take care of in a serious way, they are picking a myth called the whale and are running counter to sound scientific arguments simply to acquire a seemingly green profile.'

At the same time 'they are not being done under the Climate Convention and under the Convention on Biodiversity, in the real dramatic issues of the world's ecology'.

Norway, she said, was being mugged by ecological fundamentalists who were more interested in 'selective animal welfare' than genuine concepts of the sustainable development of the environment.

'Serious issues are being dealt with in an unserious way,' she complained, and said that if the IWC voted not to allow a commercial minke whale hunt while scientists say the whale is abundant, it would 'undermine the influence of the environmental movement'. She went on to angrily accuse Greenpeace and other environmental organisations of manipulating public opinion to cash in on the symbolic value of the whale for commercial reasons, saying that the proper stewardship of the environment must not be carried out on the basis of myth.

If the minke whale population grew big, Mrs Brundtland said, the species would then threaten other endangered types of whale because it would eat too much food and she suggested that Norway's whale hunt was designed as much to protect the future of the whale. Until the latest controversy erupted, Mrs Brundtland was known as one of the world's greenest heads of state. But that reputation is fast disappearing because of widespread popular disenchantment over Norway's decision to stay in the whaling business, despite the widespread revulsion at the practice in many parts of the world.

Norway was involved in the near-extinction of many species of whale in the 19th and 20th centuries, although it has since led campaigns to stop the hunt for endangered whales. Mrs Brundtland was the author of the UN's groundbreaking report on environment and development which led to last year's Rio de Janeiro conference on environmental issues.

(Photographs omitted)