Whaling Case Revisited: Japan Rejects ICJ Jurisdiction Over Scientific Whaling Program

October 2015 has seen the flaring of tensions once more in the ongoing whaling dispute between Japan and Australia. On 6 October, Japan filed a special reservation to its declaration recognising the compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The special reservation, filed with the United Nations, excludes ICJ jurisdiction over:

any dispute arising out of, concerning, or relating to research on, or conservation, management or exploitation of, living resources of the sea.

In effect, Japan’s reservation seeks to prevent a future legal challenge being brought internationally against its whaling activities. Japan’s scientific whaling program has been the subject of a longstanding dispute between Australia and Japan that, in 2010, led Australia to institute legal proceedings against Japan at the ICJ. This was after the exhaustion of bilateral negotiations and discussions at the International Whaling Commission.

The Whaling in the Antarctic (Australia v Japan) case considered whether Japan, in undertaking the Japan Whale Research Program Under Special Permit in the Antarctic II (JARPA-II), had breached the 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) by killing whales in the Southern Ocean. Australia argued that Japan was in breach of a moratorium on commercial whaling effectively imposed from 1986 onwards by the adoption of paragraph 10(e) of the ICRW Schedule (which provided for zero catch limits) and Japan’s further obligation under paragraph 10(d) to observe the moratorium. Japan argued that its program fell under the limited exception to the moratorium provided in article VIII of the ICRW, allowing nations to give special permits to its nationals to kill whales ‘for purposes of scientific research’.

On 31 March 2014, the ICJ handed down its judgment, holding that JARPA-II did not fall within the scope of article VIII and determining that Japan was in contravention of the ICRW. The ICJ ordered that Japan revoke any JARPA II permits and refrain from granting any further permits under the program.

While the judgment was widely celebrated at the time as a successful instance of legal dispute resolution and a triumph for the global anti-whaling coalition, Japan has since signalled preparations for a new scientific whaling program, NEWREP-A.

Japan’s filing of a special reservation this month seemingly flouts the scope and power of the ICJ and limits Australia’s options to challenge NEWREP-A on grounds of international law. The Australian government has since announced it is seeking legal advice.