Japan Courts Poorer Nations in Bid to End Whaling Ban

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Many of these allies have been recipients of Japanese aid money, including the landlocked nations of Mongolia and Mali.

"Anyone can join the IWC," said Chris Howe, executive director for the New Zealand office of the international conservation group WWF.

"They don't have to prove a history of whaling. All they have to do is pay their membership, and they have voting rights."

Howe added that he has no problem with non-whalers or landlocked nations joining the IWC.

"Whales are a global resource, they're of interest to everybody, so everybody should have a say. We think there should be more members, but of a revised IWC that has proper representation."

New Zealand's Palmer agrees.

"You cannot say that coastline is the test [of IWC membership]," Palmer said. "There are some like-minded nations that don't have any coastline as well."

No Strings Attached?

Japan has never openly admitted that its aid payments come with any conditions attached.

But a report from a 1987 symposium of Pacific island countries recorded a representative of the Fisheries Agency of Japan telling participants that money to support fisheries comes with certain stipulations.

"When the Japanese government selects the countries to which it provides fisheries grants, criteria include that the recipient country must have a fisheries agreement with Japan, and it must take a supportive position to Japan in various international organizations," the report states.

And at a joint press conference with Australia earlier this month, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Derek Sikua explained why the Solomons had not sent a representative to the most recent IWC meeting in London.

(Related news: "Japan May Be Ready to Deal on Whaling, Insider Hints" [March 26, 2008].)

"We are not attending because usually Japan pays for our attendance, but we refused their assistance and therefore we have not gone because we can't afford it," he said.

Japan denies offering such support for countries that join its pro-whaling stance.

"The government of Japan does not fund fees, travel, or accommodation expenses through the ICR [Institute of Cetacean Research] or any other agencies," said the First Secretary of the Japanese Embassy to New Zealand, Ryosuke Hirooka.

"I am not aware of any payments … to IWC members."

Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research is a body that conducts whaling under an exemption for scientific research. ICR's spokesperson, Glen Inwood, did not respond to an interview request for this story.

Ministers and officials from nations that have accepted Japanese aid are similarly tight-lipped about any link between the funding and IWC membership.

For example, representatives from Tuvalu, Nauru, and Palau declined to comment for this story on the phone and did not reply to e-mails.

Kiribati, a nation composed of 30 small Pacific islands, relies mostly on tourism and exports of dried coconut and fish to support a shaky economy hampered by skill shortages, weak infrastructure, and remoteness.

Financial aid from the U.K., Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and China currently accounts for 10 percent of Kiribati's gross domestic product of about 73 million U.S. dollars.

Japanese aid money has helped refurbish Kiribati's power networks and bridges, buy ambulances, and improve fisheries infrastructure.

Officials there deny that the Japanese funding came with any conditions.

"All Japanese grant aid and other technical assistance has no link with our IWC membership," said Ribanataake Awira of Kiribati's Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources.

"We will continue to support the idea that if whales are part of any country's traditional diet, we do not have the right to tell those countries to get it out of their menu," Awira added.

"Our only concern is that these whales are harvested sustainably like any other marine mammals."

Uncertain Results

Atherton Martin, the former environment minister for the Caribbean island nation of Dominica, resigned his post in 2000 over his country's position at the IWC.

Martin said in 2005 that he had convinced his cabinet not to vote with Japan at the time, but the prime minister overturned the decision because Japan had threatened to withdraw aid money.

"I don't think the international legal community has yet come up with a term to describe this blatant purchasing of small-country governments by Japan," Martin told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Four Corners program.

"That has to go down in legal history as being … the high-end of public-sector extortion."

For now, though, none of the experts can predict whether Japan's alleged charm offensive will have the desired results.

"No one is sure how the numbers will fall going into the next IWC meeting at Santiago, Chile, in June," New Zealand's Palmer said.

"It's like a game of Russian roulette—you can never tell until the first vote."

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