Friday, April 21, 2006

Editorial: Review aid to whaling supporters

It is no surprise that Japan is poised to seize control of the International Whaling Commission. It came within a whisker at last year's annual meeting in South Korea, when it was widely expected to have the numbers to secure the introduction of a secret ballot. It failed only because four of its conscripted supporters failed to show up, and Finland and Denmark put the cause of voter accountability above that of Scandinavian brotherhood with pro-whaling Norway. That setback hardened already bitter attitudes. At the next IWC annual meeting, at St Kitts in June, Japan will be even more determined to see its advantage bear fruit.

A simple numerical superiority will not be enough to allow it to overturn the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling. That requires a three-quarters majority. But it puts the IWC on a slippery slope. A 51 per cent majority allows the pro-whaling countries to set the agenda for IWC meetings, choose the chairman, close down the likes of the commission's conservation watchdog, and gain a secret ballot. The latter is hugely important.

It is no secret, whatever the denials, that most of Japan's support has been secured by bribing small, generally poor, states. Substantial aid packages have been sufficient to tie nations with as little interest in matters of the sea as landlocked Mongolia and Mali to the pro-whaling cause. A secret ballot would remove the qualms still harboured by some of these nations, and other potential supporters, about backing an unpopular cause.

The temptation for the anti-whaling nations, notably New Zealand, Australia and Britain, is to fight fire with fire. There is a case for saying that, in the interests of the whale they, too, should buy votes. The IWC has only 66 members; there are plenty more small nations to be won over. For starters, New Zealand could pay the IWC membership fees for Samoa, Fiji and the Cook Islands.

But such tactics would see the anti-whaling countries lowering themselves to Japan's odious level of manipulation and becoming involved in an ever escalating, and ever more expensive, auction. That would not be a dignified reaction, or perhaps even a productive one.

Nonetheless, a cogent response is required. At the moment, this seems to involve a joint letter from New Zealand, Australia and Britain urging other anti-whaling nations to attend the meeting in St Kitts. More needs to be done. It is time to look far more closely at those nations who have thrown in their lot with Japan. They include the likes of Tuvalu, Kiribati, the Solomons and Nauru. All, of course, are Pacific states with deep and enduring relationships with New Zealand and Australia. And all have been the beneficiaries of large dollops of aid from the Anzac nations.

New Zealand and Australia have every reason to feel aggrieved that their Pacific neighbours have chosen to support Japan. A few pieces of silver have been enough to see these countries sell out, even while being well aware of the significance of the issue to their long-standing benefactors. It is reasonable to suggest that future aid packages from New Zealand and Australia to these turncoats of the Pacific should reflect their behaviour at IWC meetings.

Diplomacy is always a matter of give and take. Japan, however, has overstepped the bounds of acceptability by so cynically and blatantly buying votes. Its motivation makes this tactic even more dishonourable. The wish to resume uncontrolled harpooning is all about crass nationalism, not any demand of the Japanese palate. The small nations of the Pacific should be left in no doubt about that - and of the cost of their continued support for Japan.

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