Will Japan join the U.N. Security Council and defy the World Court on whaling?

Japan should undertake another year of non-lethal Antarctic research, and join leading experts studying living whales and other marine species in their ocean environment. “The Japanese,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe explained in a speech last month to the United Nations General Assembly, “are a people who view, and will continue to view, the two letters ‘U.N.’ as having a certain glimmer.” Certainly the Prime Minister and his government have long fixed their gaze on achieving a permanent seat for Japan on the U.N. Security Council. If they are ever to secure that prize, they’ll need to take another hard look at Japan’s Antarctic whaling, recently ruled illegal by the U.N. International Court of Justice (ICJ), also known as the World Court.

This Thursday, October 15th, the General Assembly will elect five regional nominees to the Security Council for a two-year term. Barring unforeseen developments, the Government of Japan will easily be elected to serve from January 1, 2016 to December 31, 2017. 

This is familiar territory for Japan, a generous supporter of UN operations, which has served a record 10 rotating terms since first elected in 1958. But this election will put Japan, the Security Council and the international community in uncharted waters. Japan will assume its seat just as it threatens to defy the ICJ’s historic judgment ordering Japan to end its Antarctic whaling programme.

After initially promising to comply with the March 2014 ICJ judgment  and taking a one-year hiatus from illegal ‘research’ whaling there, Japan’s Fisheries Agency now insists it will send its fleet back to Antarctica to kill more whales just as Japan’s delegation takes its seat on the Security Council in New York. To do so would defy the ICJ judgment and end-run a formal scientific review process and other requirements imposed by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the international body charged with the regulation of whaling and the conservation of our planet’s great whales.   

READ: 6 reasons Shinzo Abe shouldn’t restart Antarctic whaling

No serious analyst expects the whaling controversy to harpoon Japan’s candidacy for temporary Security Council membership this week. But nations around the world are watching closely to see whether the Government of Japan, which openly aspires to permanent membership, will take its obligations under the U.N. Charter seriously, specifically Article 94, which states:

  “1. Each member of the United Nations undertakes to comply with the decision of the International Court of Justice in any case to which it is a party”, and further,

 “2. If any party fails to perform the obligations incumbent upon it under a judgment rendered by the Court, the other party may have recourse to the Security Council which may, if it deems necessary, make recommendations or decide upon measures to give effect to the judgment.”

With great power, the saying goes, comes great responsibility.

Bluster from its fisheries bureaucrats notwithstanding, it would be untenable for Japan to defy last year’s landmark ICJ decision on whaling while serving on the Security Council - the body of last resort for ensuring effective implementation of ICJ judgments.

Japan should instead undertake another year of non-lethal Antarctic research, and join leading experts from the U.S., the U.K., Australia and other nations studying living whales and other marine species in their ocean environment.

 Prime Minister Abe ended his remarks to the General Assembly last month with a bold vision:

“Holding aloft the flag of ‘Proactive Contributor to Peace based on the principle of international cooperation,’ Japan is determined to undertake Security Council reform in order to transform the United Nations into a body appropriate for the 21st Century, and then, as a permanent member of the Security Council, carry out its responsibilities in making still greater contributions towards world peace and prosperity.” 

Lofty goals eloquently stated. The journey to permanent U.N. Security Council membership could be a long one for Japan, but it is one that should begin. By carrying out its responsibility to abide by the judgment of the world’s highest court, cooperating with the international community to study and conserve whales rather than killing them in the name of science or commerce, and permanently transforming its Antarctic research programme into one more appropriate for the 21st Century, Japan would be taking steps in the right direction.


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Brian Sharp, Emergency Relief Officer, Stranding Coordinator
Manager, Marine Mammal Rescue and Research
Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation
Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation Program
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
Program Director, Marine Conservation