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International Whaling Commission

Volume 648: debated on Thursday 1 November 2018

I was unable to attend this year’s meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC67) on 10-14 September 2018 in Brazil due to pressing commitments in relation to the UK’s exit from the EU. However, a strong UK delegation was present.

This meeting was particularly challenging, with a number of complex and controversial proposals tabled. These included a significant challenge to the long-standing moratorium on commercial whaling. However, I am happy to report that all UK objectives for this meeting were achieved and the strong global protection in place for cetaceans was maintained.

As always, the UK delegation worked tirelessly behind the scenes, supporting the EU presidency, analysing proposals, brokering compromises, and influencing crucial decisions, all with the aim of securing improvements to the conservation and welfare of cetaceans.

The UK also ensured its long-standing opposition to commercial whaling and whaling under special permit (scientific whaling) was made clear at every appropriate opportunity. As always, there was the need for careful diplomacy, with the UK working hard to ensure dialogue remained constructive and respectful despite the fundamental differences in views.

Of particular importance at this meeting was resisting the proposal by Japan to restructure the organisation to allow for the resumption of commercial whaling. This complex proposal sought to create a new whaling committee within the IWC to oversee a return to commercial whaling on abundant whale populations and relax the voting rules for amending the convention’s schedule (which contains the provision establishing the moratorium) from a three-quarter to a simple majority. The UK worked extremely hard on defending against this proposal, leading the co-ordination with like-minded countries to ensure a coherent and well aligned strategy. I was therefore extremely relieved to see that the proposal failed to secure sufficient support and that the critical commercial whaling moratorium remains in place. The UK will now use the intersessional period to reach out to countries on both sides of the debate to ensure that constructive engagement within the IWC is maintained.

I am pleased to also report that a number of other important agreements were reached, in particular with regards aboriginal subsistence whaling (ASW) which was a challenging but important proposal and one that the UK had been engaging closely on for several months prior to the meeting. The proposal sought to renew, and in some cases increase, quotas for indigenous communities reliant on whales for subsistence purposes. In addition, it also introduced expanded carryover provisions to allow greater flexibility for hunters and a mechanism to automatically renew quotas without the need for the IWC to discuss and agree providing the scientific advice was favourable and there were no substantive changes to the hunt or subsistence need. After a series of complex negotiations within which the UK was centrally placed, an eventual compromise was reached, a compromise that protects indigenous communities’ access to food, reducing the stress and uncertainty associated with returning to the IWC every six years to request food for their families, but crucially balancing this by ensuring the IWC maintains its important oversight role and protecting its decision-making power in the event that the status quo situation of the hunts changes. I am extremely pleased by this landmark decision for the IWC which clearly demonstrates the maturity and functioning nature of the organisation.

I was also encouraged to see a number of important decisions taken on tackling important threats to cetaceans, in particular the passing by consensus of resolutions on underwater noise and ghost gear. The Florianopolis declaration also passed following a vote, delivering a clear statement from anti-whaling nations on their vision for the future of the IWC; one that is rooted in conservation without the need for commercial or scientific whaling.

Important progress was also made on further modernisation of the organisation through institutional and governance improvements. An intersessional process was established to bring forward recommendations and develop a programme of work in time for the next biennial meeting in 2020. The working group tasked with delivering this will be chaired by the USA, with the UK taking on an important role as Vice Chair.

I was pleased to see how the discussions on special permits progressed following the report of the intersessional working group established by resolution at the previous biennial meeting. The UK participated in this group, expertly chaired by Australia, which delivered for the first time a clear and concise summary of the advice of the scientific committee and proposed conclusions for the IWC to adopt. Despite disagreements from pro-whaling nations, the IWC meeting report will reflect these conclusions as representing the view of the commission, with a statement opposing from those that disagreed. This represents a good outcome and for the first time provides significant clarity of position for the IWC on this matter.

Once again I am pleased to report that the UK, in line with the agreed position of EU member states, voted in favour of establishing a South Atlantic whale sanctuary. Unfortunately the proposal failed to gain the three-quarters majority required for adoption. I expect this proposal to be re-tabled at the next meeting in 2020, which, in the absence of any other offer, will be hosted by Slovenia.

Finally, I was pleased that the UK led work to develop a tool to assess the welfare implications of non-hunting threats to cetacean welfare and efforts to further strengthen the conservation work of the IWC received endorsement. We will continue working closely with NGOs and academia to maintain momentum and continue to deliver improved conservation and welfare outcomes for cetaceans.

In conclusion, despite the significant challenges faced at this meeting, this can be viewed as a success. We now turn our attention to the intersessional period and, following our successful nomination to the IWC bureau, begin building for the 2020 meeting. Integral to this will be our continued close working with civil society in delivering our shared goal of improving the conservation and welfare of cetaceans globally.