THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — The International Court of Justice on Monday ordered a temporary halt to Japan's Antarctic whaling program, ruling that it is not for scientific purposes as the Japanese had claimed.
Australia had sued Japan at the U.N.'s highest court for resolving disputes between nations in hopes of ending whaling in the icy Southern Ocean.
Reading a 12-4 decision by the court's 16-judge panel, Presiding Judge Peter Tomka of Slovakia said Japan's program failed to justify the large number of minke whales it aims to catch under its current Antarctic program — 850 annually. It also failed to catch nearly that number, and didn't come closing to catching the 50 fin and 50 humpback whales it also aimed to take.
All that drew into doubt whether Japan's assertion that its whaling is for scientific purposes, he said.
"The evidence does not establish that the program's design and implementation are reasonable in relation to achieving its stated objectives," Tomka said.
The court ordered Japan to halt any issuing of whaling permits until the program has been revamped.
Japanese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Noriyuki Shikata told reporters that the country "regrets and is deeply disappointed" by the decision.
But "as a state that respects the rule of law ... and as a responsible member of the global community, Japan will abide by the ruling of the court."
The decision is a major victory for Australia and environmental groups that oppose whaling on ethical grounds, though it will not mean the end of whaling.
Japan has a second, smaller program in the northern Pacific. Meanwhile Norway and Iceland reject a 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling imposed by the International Whaling Commission and conduct for-profit whaling.
Nevertheless, environmental groups rejoiced.
The ruling "certainly has implications ultimately for whaling by Iceland and Norway as well," said Patrick Ramage, director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare's whale program, outside the courtroom.
"I think it will increase pressure on those two countries to re-examine their own whaling practices and the various reasons and pretexts given for that whaling activity."
Japan had argued that Australia's suit was an attempt to force its cultural norms on Japan, equivalent to Hindus demanding an international ban on killing cows.
Though consumption of whale meat has declined in popularity in Japan in recent years, it is still considered a delicacy by some.
Japan has pledged to abide by the court's ruling.
Monday's ruling found that killing whales for scientific purposes would be justifiable under international law in the context of a better-designed study. Japan's program was supposed to determine whether commercial whaling of some species can resume without bringing them in danger of extinction.
The ruling noted among other factors that Japan had not considered a smaller program or non-lethal methods to study whale populations. In its defense, Japan cited only two peer-reviewed scientific papers relating to its program from 2005 to the present — a period during which it has harpooned 3,600 minke whales, a handful of fin whales, and no humpback whales at all.