Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

Almost Saving Whales: The Ambiguity of Success at the International Whaling Commission

Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

Almost Saving Whales: The Ambiguity of Success at the International Whaling Commission

Article excerpt

The international regulation of whaling has been a tremendous success. It has reduced whale hunting dramatically from its peak in the 1960s and brought almost all species of whales out of danger of extinction. Today, whaling conservation stands as a--or perhaps the--paradigm of a successful international regime. Yet the international organization responsible for this success is itself in such crisis that it may not survive.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) is the international organization responsible for regulating whale hunting. Created after World War II, it now comprises both the main whaling nations and the main anti-whaling nations, and the split between the two is so stark that for years the organization has been barely functioning. Its opposing blocs of anti- and pro-whaling states have mutually exclusive understandings of what the regime permits and evenly divided power. Their mutual vetoes ensure that the dysfunctional status quo prevails, and the idea of "success" is coming to look increasingly unclear. The rules that the commission designed decades ago remain in place today, but the members cannot agree either to enforce them or to change them. Chief among these rules is the ban on commercial whaling, which has existed since the mid-1980s. Despite this ban, several members continue to openly hunt whales, arguing with technical legal reasoning why the ban does not in fact apply to their behavior. The 2010 annual meeting of the IWC presented what may have been the last chance to confront these differences directly, but it ended in a spectacular diplomatic failure, as I shall describe below.

The problems of the IWC vividly illustrate the larger dilemmas of international law and organization, and so they are of interest to scholars beyond the domain of whales and whalers. These include problems of supermajority decision rules, changes brought about by new members, contested amendments to the mandate of an organization, and the push and pull of civil-society groups. Disagreement over the substance of the whaling regime has been displaced; it has been recast as a set of disputes over legal technicalities regarding how and when states are allowed to make reservations to treaties and what counts as "scientific" research on whales. The whaling regime has thus become a microcosm of the problems of international law and diplomacy, where a shared commitment to the rule of law coexists with deep disagreements over the meaning of compliance. The case illustrates what can go right and what can go wrong in the design of international institutions, and in the dynamics among state interests, regimes, and activists.


The IWC's legal instrument is the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW). This treaty, from 1946, sets out the goal of protecting "all species of whales from further over-fishing." It gives the commission power to set catch limits, gear limits, and otherwise to "adopt regulations with respect to the conservation and utilization of whale resources." This includes a "schedule" of whale-hunt quotas for member countries attached to the treaty and renegotiated at periodic general meetings, much like the World Trade Organization's Schedule of Concessions.

The regime really came into its own in the beginning of the 1970s, as industrial-scale whaling pushed many species toward extinction. Whaling states had dominated the IWC up to that point, and annual quotas were set very high--so high, in fact, that they sometimes went unfilled. Oran Young has called the IWC in the 1960s "a whalers club unable to make tough decisions about restrictions needed to rebuild stocks." (1) The power of the club produced dramatic declines in whale stocks and a consequent move by anti-whaling states to join the IWC in order to shift the position of its median voter.

With new members, many backed by new anti-whaling nongovernmental organizations, the IWC began using its authority to constrain annual catches to a level below what was already practiced. …

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