Friday, July 8. 2011
We are now in the last couple of days before the opening of the 63rd meeting of the International Whaling Commission. Workshops have been running behind the closed doors of the meeting halls in the Hotel de France in St. Helier, Jersey, in the Channel Islands and the Commission will finally open its doors to the public and the press on Monday.
So, how do we come be in Jersey? Well, when no country invites the IWC to town for its annual meeting, as was the case for at least the main IWC meeting this year, the IWC Secretariat (which is based in Cambridge, UK) has to find a venue based on the budget that it has available. The last time this happened was the meeting held in Hammersmith in London. This time the Secretariat has brought us to Jersey (for which we thank them). Strictly speaking, the Channel Islands are not part of the UK, but they are part of Britain and thanks to some interesting quirks of local history, here the royal toast is to ‘Her Majesty the Queen, the Duke of Normandy'.
The Islands are self-governing and steeped in their own rich history which is strongly coloured by some five centuries of battles between the UK and France for their ownership. There is still a strong French influence visible, for example, in many place names here. It seems that allegiance to the British crown was achieved because it allowed self-governance. Another strong local influence is the legacy of the years of occupation that the islands suffered during World War II when they were the only part of Britain to be occupied by Nazi forces. Early in the war, Hitler issued instruction that the islands should be fortified and many remaining structures show how efficiently this was achieved. There are also many monuments to this time. One stands just outside the main bus station – the Liberation Station - on the quay in St Helier (the Island’s capital). Here a joyful group of people are depicted waving a giant Union Jack (the British flag) in the air. It was never clear during the War that the Islands were of any strategic significance. They were too far away from the UK coastline for that and, for example, played no part in the evacuations of cornered ally troops from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk. However, Hitler’s orders were rigorously followed and although many islanders escaped before the occupation, many were also trapped here.
It would be inappropriate to make a comparison between those times and the meetings happening here now at the Hotel de France. So we won’t. However, July 2011 sees a meeting of nations – potentially as many as 89 if all the member nations of the IWC show up – of some significance, not just for the whales but also for how the international community conducts itself because key issues on the agenda this year include the ‘governance of the IWC’. The old Convention that established the IWC was agreed in 1946 and includes many elements that more modern treaties now clearly avoid. Most famously there is the ‘scientific whaling’ clause which allows nations to issue quotas to themselves for ‘scientific research’. Then there are the various veils of secrecy that affect many issues and meetings. Hence the report of the scientific committee (which we can reveal met a few weeks ago in Tromso in Arctic Norway) remains secret as do the meetings that happened this week – until we get to Monday. Then there are arguably lesser, but still important, matters relating to how the IWC functions such as the fact that countries can turn up and pay their annual dues (and secure their right to vote) during the meeting and in cash. These and a host of other issues need to be updated to make the IWC fit to face the 21st century. The UK has a proposal in play – as can be seen on the IWC website - (in the form of a resolution – the usual way that the IWC makes decisions) to address some of these issues. In many ways it is a modest proposal, but it is still a step in the right direction if it goes through.
Other key issues include how the IWC deals with requests for ‘aboriginal subsistence whaling quotas’. Quotas to provide subsistence for certain indigenous peoples who have a nutritional and cultural dependence on whales have been permitted by the IWC for decades. However, concerns have arisen in recent years about the conformity of some hunts with those longstanding principles, in particular the growing commercialization of whale products in Greenland beyond those who depend on them for subsistence, including sales to tourists. More of this later. There is also much work to be done to protect whales in the 21st century from modern threats such as climate change and marine debris. We are encouraging the IWC to step up and take these matters urgently in hand. So please look here for updates from the WDCS team at the IWC to see how these things are progressing. The main Commission meeting (when it opens its doors to the public) starts here on the 11th and runs until the 14th.