Mark SimmondsDirector of Science
We are witnessing an event of bad faith diplomacy that is unacceptable.
Outrage at the meeting of the International Whaling Commission
At the start of the session on the penultimate day of the sixty-eighth meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC68) in a huge hall in a big hotel on the coast of Slovenia I am settling into my seat. I am near to the very front of the plenary room but a message comes from a friend somewhere near the back. «There seem to be many countries missing» she says. I swivel around and I can see none of the Caribbean or African countries in their seats. Iceland is swiftly exiting the room and some others are also missing, including the representative of Japan, which is no longer a member of the IWC.
This is the day that the IWC is due to make some decisions and is likely to be voting on certain matters. There are three resolutions and one schedule amendment (the proposal for the South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary) to be considered.
The tricky question of quorum
The Chairman notices that countries are missing and notes that we will wait for a few minutes to see if they will arrive. Anxious eyes are now watching the main entrance. The door remains firmly shut. Then it becomes apparent that the meeting may be inquorate because of the absences. In other words, there are not enough countries present to allow decisions to be made. Members of the secretariat now appear with papers in hand as they quietly and quickly make an assessment of the meeting status.
The South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary would have been within reach
Delegates sit awkwardly in their seats whilst this goes on. The meeting is paralysed. What could have caused this remarkable absence of seventeen countries? Well, the first order of business would have been the Sanctuary. This has been brought to the meetings of the Commission many times before by the countries of Latin American group. To achieve a new IWC Sanctuary (there are already two others) requires three quarters to support it and, at this meeting, noting the arrival of the commissioners from Colombia and Ireland in just the last few hours, it looked like it could be achieved. (In fact, the potential success of the Sanctuary proposal took many by surprise after so many years of trying, and especially as this IWC Meeting was peculiar in that earlier those countries that had not paid their membership fees since 2020 were granted voting rights in recognition of hardship caused by the pandemic). On previous attempts to have the Sanctuary voted in what might be called the pro-use alliance of countries had acted to stop it, using their «blocking minority» of more than a quarter.
A fateful decision
The chairman is forced to announce that the meeting is not quorate and he does not believe that the missing countries will return for this agenda item. A little later there is a sighting of most of them sitting in the lobby of another nearby hotel probably watching developments on the live-feed from the meeting.
There follows a debate about how quorum should be interpreted. There is some ambiguity in the rules. It is suggested that quorum could be judged based on how many countries have registered for the meeting and not who is actually in the room. This interpretation gains weight because at this IWC Meeting, delegates are registered when passing the plenary room door, registering with their bar-code on their badges. However, the prevailing view is that it should be based on the count of how many are in the room at the time of a decision being made.
An event of bad faith diplomacy
Eventually, and with clear regret, the chair closes the agenda item. There will be no vote on the Sanctuary at this meeting. Not surprisingly, next come speeches deploring the bad behaviour of the absent countries and also challenging the interpretation of quorum that was made. The considerable disappointment and anger in the room reaches a high volume. Some at the back of the room are in tears. To have the South Atlantic Sanctuary again blocked when it was so close to being achieved is understandably a matter of great disappointment to those who brought the proposal and those who supported it. We are witnessing an event of bad faith diplomacy that is unacceptable, although, sadly, similar tactics have been used before.
After a break, the meeting resumes. All countries are now back in their seats. Two resolutions from the pro-whaling side (one on restarting the discussions about how to manage commercial whaling and the other about «food security») are not put to the vote (they would probably have failed) and one resolution – that concerns plastic pollution – passes unanimously. This is cause for some celebration as the IWC will now be able to contribute more significantly to global efforts to reduce plastic pollution impacts on cetaceans, although all the positive achievements of the nine days of meetings are rather obscured by the bitter disappointment over the Sanctuary non-vote.
The positive results of a difficult meeting
More positively and noting that this was the first meeting of the IWC for four years thanks to the pandemic, here are a list of some of the successes:
- The work of the IWC’s Conservation and Scientific Committee’s was endorsed – this includes many important conservation recommendations and work streams, including for example criticism of the kill just over a year ago of some 1,400 Atlantic white-sided dolphins in a single hunt in the Faroe Islands.
- A new initiative to take forward work on climate change was among these new work areas agreed (something that OceanCare championed);
- The Whale Welfare Assessment Tool which was developed to help better understand the consequences of a range of human activities for cetaceans was endorsed; and
- A new communication tool was also endorsed and this will help alert the world to the imminent demise of some cetacean populations and thereby engender faster action.
In addition, a budget was agreed and so the IWC can continue its work – something that was far from clear could be achieved at the outset of the meeting. However, it is a budget with cuts, and some tough cost-saving decisions will have to be made. The IWC’s important conservation and welfare work will continue but it is far from safe.
The proceedings of the Commission meeting were recorded and can be found on YouTube here: youtube.com/channel/UCLtg7GtpJ_eTaJuPqRyOOhQ
The text of the Plastics Resolution is here: archive.iwc.int/pages/view.php?ref=19620&k=