Editorial: Saving whales and saving face

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Southland-born journalist Peter Arnett, who became one of the stars of CNN, was covering the war in Vietnam for the Associated Press in 1968 when he took down a priceless quote.

Referring to the decision to bomb and shell the enemy-occupied Mekong Delta town of Ben Tre, even though the likelihood of many civilian casualties was very high, a US officer, according to Arnett, said "It became necessary to destroy the town to save it".

The quote's accuracy was officially disputed, but it entered the lexicon as "we had to destroy the village in order to save it."

This surrealistic paradox leapt immediately to mind when Sir Geoffrey Palmer, New Zealand's representative on the International Whaling Commission, suggested this week that the best way to save whales might be to agree to the killing of them.

Sir Geoffrey defended the apparently counter-intuitive idea on TVNZ's Q+A programme, while discussing the proposal by an IWC working group that the 24-year-old moratorium on commercial whaling be lifted.

Interestingly, the working group included representatives of whaling nations (Japan and Iceland) and strong anti-whaling countries (Australia, New Zealand and the US).

The reasonable inference is that at least some of the hardest negotiating has already been done and that, if the proposal is put to the vote at the commission's next annual meeting, in June in Morocco, it will not be howled down or dismissed out of hand. It is, in short, an idea with some legs.

But it faces some stern opposition outside the organisation. A local representative of the international NGO network Whalewatch, Bridget Vercoe, thought it "bizarre" that this country, whose priority has always been the conservation and protection of whales, is now considering supporting the deal.

"It is difficult to see how it is an improvement on the status quo," she wrote, arguing that lifting the moratorium, whatever the motivation, set a dangerous precedent and amounted to "an endorsement of commercial whaling."

As a statement of the obvious that takes some beating. And it is a truth that has certainly not eluded Sir Geoffrey. But the fact remains that the present regime is not working. In the quarter-century since a moratorium on commercial whaling was introduced, between 25,000 and 33,000 whales (depending on whose figures are used) have been slaughtered.

And events in the Southern Ocean raise the real danger that human protesters might die while trying to prevent the bloody hunts.

The excuse by whaling nations - Japan is the villain of the piece in the waters at this end of the earth - that their whaling is conducted as part of scientific research and thus escapes the ban is an ongoing act of contempt for the IWC and for the creatures of the deep.

Meanwhile, Japan continues to distort the decisions of the IWC, an organisation that Sir Geoffrey aptly describes as dysfunctional. It does so by buying the votes - with membership dues and foreign aid inducements - of small or landlocked countries which would otherwise have no interest in deliberations.

An Australian plan to take a case to the International Court of Justice unquestionably has the appeal of righteousness, but Sir Geoffrey says that is "a very uncertain proposition" and points out that if the case were lost "the situation would be worse than it is now", since Japan's rorting of the system would be lent a veneer of legal respectability.

The subject is a deeply emotive one. Anti-whaling groups, who have the support, tacit or explicit, of every sensible New Zealander, know as much.

The sight of these magnificent mammals being hunted with explosive harpoons and hauled aboard floating butcheries is one that, rightly, sickens us. But the fear of losing face is a powerful force in the Japanese character. The solution to the present imbroglio calls for lateral thinking and a creative approach. Compromises need to be made on all sides.

If the lifting of the moratorium means a dramatic reduction in the slaughter - and we should not agree to it unless it does - it is a plan that should be pursued. Every day we dither, more whales die.

- Herald on Sunday

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