Australian Outlook

In this section

The ICJ Decides: Whaling in the Antarctic

02 Apr 2014
Liz Placanica

This week the International Court of Justice (ICJ) upheld Australia’s challenge to Japan’s Antarctic whaling program. The ICJ concluded by 12 votes to four that the scientific permits granted through Japan’s JARPA II whaling program were not for the purposes of scientific research as defined under the rules of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.

The case against Japan was first launched in 2010 by the Rudd Government. In its application Australia accused Japan of exploiting loopholes in the 1986 ban on commercial whaling through depicting its hunting as scientific research or, in the words of the Australian Government’s counsel Bill Campbell QC, cloaking commercial whaling “in the lab coat of science.”

Australia’s staunch opposition to whaling dates back to the 1970s when the last whaling station in the English-speaking world, located in Western Australia, was shut down. The decision to launch legal action against Japan, however, was not just a moral one. As Shirley Scott wrote in Australian Outlook earlier this year, Australia was motivated by both political factors at home and the additional benefits that would stem from “winning the support of global public opinion.”

Following the decision, Japan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Koji Tsuruoka affirmed that Japan will comply with the decision of the court due to its desire to be seen as responsible actor that respects the rule of law. By complying with the decision Japan appears to send a strong message to China on the importance of respecting the international legal order – an issue central to Japan’s ongoing conflict over ownership of the Senkaku/Diayo islands. This is in contrast to earlier comments that were interpreted as subtle threats to quit the International Whaling Commission if the ruling did not go its way. Tsuruoka has previously expressed intransigence on whaling which he describes as deeply embedded in Japan’s national identity and culture.

Whether Tony Abbott’s 2010 warning that legal action could “needlessly antagonise relations with Australia’s “most important trading partner” will be determined next week on his first official visit to Tokyo as Prime Minister. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has consistently propounded “shared values and mutual commitment to international law” as a foundation for stronger co-operation with Australia. While some commentators fear that the ICJ’s decision could cause a diplomatic storm, the Abbott Government has expressed optimism that this relatively narrow issue will not derail the planned free trade talks.

It may be a case of ‘Don’t mention the whaling case’.

Liz Placanica is an intern at the Australian Institute of International Affairs National Office and post-graduate student at the Australian National University. She can be reached at