THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — The future of whaling in Japan was thrown into doubt after the International Court of Justice ruled Monday that the nation's annual hunt in the Antarctic was not really for scientific purposes — as Tokyo had claimed — and ordered it halted.
The ruling was a major victory for whaling opponents, as it ends for now one of the world's biggest whale hunts, for minkes in the icy Southern Ocean. The judgment was praised by Australia, which brought the case against Japan in 2010, and by environmentalists, who have been seeking an end to whaling since the 1970s on ethical grounds.
The world court's decision leaves Japan with a tough choice between ending whaling outright — despite past claims that it would never abandon such a deep-seated cultural practice — or redesigning its program to make it a scientific endeavor after all.
Japan has previously all but ruled out joining Norway and Iceland in openly flouting the international consensus against commercial whaling.
Former Australian environment minister Peter Garrett, who oversaw the suit's launch, said he felt vindicated.
"I'm absolutely over the moon, for all those people who wanted to see the charade of scientific whaling cease once and for all," Garrett told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio. "I think (this) means without any shadow of a doubt that we won't see the taking of whales in the Southern Ocean in the name of science."
In a 12-4 majority judgment, the U.N. court sided with Australia, finding that Japan's program fell short of following scientific methods. For instance, judges said Japan had given no reason for its target of 850 minke whales annually and often failed to meet the target. It gave no defense of why it needed to kill that many to study them. And the "research" program had produced just two peer-reviewed scientific papers since 2005.
"The court concludes that the special permits granted by Japan for the killing, taking, and treating of whales ... are not 'for purposes of scientific research'," presiding judge Peter Tomka said.
The court ordered Japan to grant no further permits for its current Antarctic program.
Japan had argued its study was aimed at determining whether commercial hunting could be conducted on a sustainable basis.
The International Court of Justice is the U.N.'s court for resolving disputes between nations and its ruling are binding and not subject to appeal. Although sovereign countries can and occasionally do ignore them at times, both Japan and Australia had pledged to abide by this decision.
Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Monday the government will keep its word and obey the court "as a state that places a great importance on the international legal order."
However, he criticized the International Whaling Commission, the main international body that regulates whaling, which ordered a moratorium on all commercial whaling in 1986. That moratorium has remained in place despite recommendations from its own scientific committee that some whale species are robust enough to support a whaling industry.