Whaling: Brown bags and murky waters

 
Humpback whale

From the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting in Jersey

The Sunday Times newspaper finds itself splashed this week with a little of the hot water that has swept away its stable companion the News of the World.

Little over a year ago, it was making quite a splash itself in whaling circles with an undercover "sting" on members of the IWC.

Officials of six countries, the team found, that commonly voted with Japan's pro-whaling bloc, were willing to consider changing sides - for a fee.

Allegations that Japan funded developing country delegations were not exactly new. But this was one of the first - perhaps the first - occasion on which documentary evidence was produced by a mainstream media organisation.

That row erupted just before the last IWC meeting, in Morocco; and one of the European delegates who was in private talks at that meeting told me that what distressed him most was a reaction by some to the effect that newspapers had no business doing this sort of thing.

What to do? The response of a number of anti-whaling nations was that the IWC badly needed reforming - and at this meeting, a reform proposal initiated by the UK and since adopted by the EU is on the table.

Among the measures it proposes is that member countries should no longer be able to pay their dues in cash.

'Undesirable'

And a document that's fallen into my hands from the Finance and Administration Committee contains a fascinating tidbit on the extent of this practice.

"In recent years, the amount of cash received by the Secretariat from Contracting Governments for annual payments has risen substantially from £4,584 in 2007 to £27,360 in 2009," it reads.

"Cash payments are undesirable as they present a security risk to Secretariat staff who are required to carry and present large cash sums in countries where they are not ordinarily resident and have no local knowledge of transport, security or banking systems."

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Accordingly, the secretariat - the small body of full-time staff who service the IWC's activities - have requested an end to cash payments.

Just to put those sums in perspective, the smallest membership fee any country pays is in the region of £6,000 per year - so in 2009, four, probably, turned up to the annual meeting not having paid their dues, and handed over a wad of notes.

At the time of writing - midway through Tuesday afternoon - there has been some discussion on the "end to cash" question, but any conclusion looks like being deferred until later in the week.

Like just about everything else in this forum, it's become a plaything tossed on the seas of politics, the currents of which are the dichotomous views of whales and whaling - but which also draws renewed vigour from regular injections of rhetoric on colonialism.

One casualty of the stormy waters thus far has been measures to give non-governmental organisations a greater voice within the IWC.

Civil engagement

Until recently, NGOs were not allowed to speak in the plenary hall. In recent years, their official involvement has been limited to six five-minute speeches - in principle, divided so that three come from the anti-whaling side, three from the pro-sustainable use (or pro-whaling) side.

In other bodies dealing with environmental matters, NGOs play a much larger official role, speaking in conference as and when invited by the chair, their expertise recognised and valued.

Greenpeace ship Members of Greenpeace are at the conference in Jersey, lobbying delegate

In some ways it's ironic that the IWC lags behind, because NGOs have played a bigger role down the years in whaling than in just about any other environmental issue.

It hasn't always been orderly, it hasn't always been pretty, at times it's strained the boundaries of ethics and even legality - but it's been mighty effective in getting the commercial whaling moratorium passed and then maintained.

But the issues are rather different now; and there is a view that having non-governmental organisations treated as adults would be to everyone's benefit - including, perhaps, by encouraging them to abstain from any non-adult behaviour.

However, in preliminary discussions, the UK/EU proposal has been stripped of components aimed at integrating NGOs.

Reportedly, that was the price Denmark demanded for supporting the resolution - and Denmark's support means the proposal can carry the full unanimous weight of the EU.

But if Denmark hadn't demanded that, the idea would surely have fallen anyway, given that virtually all the whaling countries and their supporters are - or say they are - against greater NGO involvement on this issue, even when they support it in other fora.

Another irony here is that Denmark was the place where the Aarhus Convention was signed - the international agreement on openness and transparency in environmental affairs.

But it is the one EU nation that could not support what in many circles is viewed as a big aid to openness and transparency - more engagement with civil society.

 
Richard Black, Environment correspondent Article written by Richard Black Richard Black Former environment correspondent

Farewell and thanks for reading

This is my last entry for this page - I'm leaving the BBC to work, initially, on ocean conservation issues.

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