Allegations of vote rigging plague whale meeting

 AGADIR, Morocco – Japanese officials and environmentalists traded blame last week as nations failed to reach a deal to curb whale hunts by Japan, Norway and Iceland that kill hundreds of whales every year.

The 88 nations of the International Whaling Commission held two days of intense closed-door talks on a proposal to ease the 25-year-old ban on commercial whaling in exchange for smaller kills by the three countries that claim exemptions to the moratorium on hunting for profit.

About 1,500 animals are killed each year by Japan, Norway and Iceland. Japan, which kills the majority of whales, insists its hunt is for scientific research – but more whale meat and whale products end up in Japanese restaurants than in laboratories.

A key sticking point appeared to be that the agency declared a whaling sanctuary in 1994 in the Southern Ocean south of Australia but Japanese ships hunt freely there because the agency has no enforcement powers. Australia has already launched a complaint against Japanese whaling at the Inter-national Court of Justice in The Hague, the U.N.’s highest court.

Acting IWC Chairman Anthony Liverpool told an open meeting last week that “fundamental positions remained very much apart.”

“After nearly three years of discussions, it appears our discussions are at an impasse,” said chief U.S. delegate Monica Medina.

Japanese whaling commissioner Yasue Funayama said her country had offered major concessions to reach a compromise and blamed anti-whaling countries that refused to accept the killing of a single animal.

The meeting was also plagued by the allegations of Japanese vote buying. Accusations that Japan uses aid money and personal favours to buy votes have quietly circulated for years around the IWC, which oversees the conservation of the whales that Japan regularly hunts.

Now, a sting operation by a London newspaper that secretly filmed officials from six developing countries negotiating for bribes has brought such allegations into the open, at least in the corridors of the commission’s annual meeting.

The Sunday Times of London secretly filmed the officials talking with reporters who portrayed themselves as emissaries of a Swiss billionaire wanting anti-whaling votes at the IWC’s meeting in Morocco.

The six indicated that any offer from the Swiss would have to top what Japan already gives them. Tanzania’s top delegate was quoted as saying he had accepted trips to Japan, where he was offered free “massages” in his hotel room, which he said he declined.

“Vote buying is the dirty little secret at the IWC,” said environmentalist Patrick Ramage, who has been attending conferences for 15 years. He called it “a slow-motion hostile takeover of an international forum.” And while all powerful nations try to wield their influence, Japan’s “multiyear sustained effort is really quite unique,” he said.

Japan denies any wrongdoing, and says allegations of vote buying are meant to “devaluate” Japan’s position at the IWC.

“It is national policy to support developing countries,” said Hideki Moronuki, of the Japanese ministry for agriculture, forestry and fisheries. “Do you think that kind of ODA (overseas development assistance) is some kind of bribe? I don’t think so.”

Japan insists its whaling is advance scientific knowledge of whales, creatures about which much remains mysterious. But most of the animals end up as meat products rather than lab specimens, and the Japanese say their continued whaling is a matter of national pride.

The Japanese government builds fisheries, harbours, schools and contributes to development budgets of more than 20 countries that consistently vote in Japan’s interests at the IWC and are likely to support whatever position it takes on the proposal.

The Sunday Times newspaper said the $6,000 hotel bill for Chairman Liverpool was prepaid with a credit card that the paper traced to Japan Tours and Travel, based in Houston, Texas. Liverpool is a diplomat from Antigua and Barbuda and its ambassador to Japan.

When asked by the paper about accepting the money from Japanese interests, Liverpool was quoted as saying, “Yes, but there is nothing extremely odd about that.”

The whaling commission was created after World War II to conserve and manage whale stocks. Tens of thousands of animals were killed each year until the IWC adopted the moratorium, and now about 1,500 animals are killed each year by Japan, Norway and Iceland. Japan says its killing of hundreds of whales every year is for scientific research.

Influence peddling goes back decades. Birgit Sloth, then a delegate for the Danish government, recalls seeing the chief negotiator of a Caribbean nation pay his fees at an IWC meeting in Britain in the early 1980s with a check drafted in Japanese yen.

“At that time no one paid much attention. Now it’s done in a much more hidden way,” she said.

Leslie Busby, then working for the Italy-based Third Millennium Foundation, compiled a report in 2007 on Japan’s ‘vote consolidation operation.’ She said 28 countries have been recruited to the whaling commission as a result of Japanese aid — including the landlocked African nation of Mali — giving the regulatory agency roughly a 50-50 split between pro- and anti-whaling countries.

Busby said those aid-recipient nations consistently vote in support of Japan.

“It makes it all meaningless. There’s no point to debate the issues because positions are predetermined,” she said in an interview.

In her report, Busby reproduces a 2002 letter from Grenada’s accountant general asking the former agriculture minister what happened to missing funds paid by Japan in 1998 and 1999. It asked him to assist “with information on Japan’s contributions to the Government of Grenada for the International Whaling Commission for the stated period.”

A few supporters of the three whaling countries have hunting traditions. But Japan also has regular backing from countries, like the African states, that never had an interest in whaling.

“Japan is doing a lot of things in West Africa. In return Japan asks these countries to support them at IWC meetings,” said Mamadou Diallo, a former Senegalese government science researcher.

“It’s a transaction, a sale. ‘If I give you this, you give me that.’ … Yes, we can say it’s a bribe, because normally our countries are not for whaling”.