Australia to take Japan to court over whaling

Japan's Foreign Minister said yesterday that he was disappointed with Australia's threat to take his country to court over its Antarctic whale hunts, while Australia vowed to approach the International Whaling Commission as soon as today.

The comments from Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada followed two days of talks with officials in Australia over Tokyo's research whaling program, which kills hundreds of whales each year in Antarctic waters. On Friday, the day before Okada's arrival, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said Australia would take international legal action against Japan if the program was not stopped by November.



"It's very unfortunate the Australian side has indicated it will take action in an international court," Okada told reporters in Perth following a meeting with Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith.



Okada said Tokyo will defend its hunt in any legal forum, saying it is an allowed exception to the International Whaling Commission's 1986 ban on commercial whaling. Whale meat not used for study is sold for consumption in Japan, which critics say is the real reason for the hunts.



Australia, a staunch anti-whaling nation, has long threatened to take Japan to court over the program. Two years ago, it sent a ship to Antarctic waters to follow the Japanese whaling fleet and collect videos and photographs it said might be used as evidence in an international forum.



Following his meeting with Okada, Smith said the Australian government has decided to present a proposal to the International Whaling Commission asking that the whaling program be stopped within a "reasonable period of time."



"That is a position that we will put to the International Whaling Commission in the very near future, potentially as early as tomorrow," Smith said.



Smith said that if an agreement between the countries isn't reached, Australia will seek arbitration in the International Court of Justice at The Hague.



Despite the stalemate over whaling, both Smith and Okada said the issue would not hurt the countries' strong bilateral ties.



The talks come amid an increasingly aggressive fight between the Japanese whaling fleet and U.S.-based activist group Sea Shepherd, which pursues the whalers each year in an attempt to thwart the hunt.



In January, a Japanese whaler struck Sea Shepherd's high-tech speedboat Ady Gil, which sank a day later. Earlier this month, Sea Shepherd's ship Bob Barker and a Japanese harpoon boat collided, causing minor damage to both vessels.



Sea Shepherd activists have thrown bottles of butyric acid at the whalers, and the Japanese have returned fire with water cannons.



Last week, Sea Shepherd activist Peter Bethune jumped aboard the Shonan Maru 2 from a Jet Ski with the stated goal of making a citizen's arrest of the ship's captain.



The whalers took him into custody, and he will face charges in Japan of trespassing and assault.



"We condemn any action on the high seas which puts safety at sea at risk," Smith said. "That includes the throwing of projectiles from one vessel to another and it includes people jumping on a vessel without consent and without lawful authority."

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