Japanese government has cited the eating of whales as justification for killing them, just months before the International Court of Justice in The Hague hears Australia’s challenge to Tokyo’s “scientific” whaling program.

Using an exemption in international law, the officially named “Japanese Whale Research Program under Special Permit in the Antarctic” has been used for decades to justify the taking of endangered and/or threatened fin and minke whales in a disputed sanctuary south of Australia.

The International Whaling Commission’s edicts and diplomatic efforts have failed to change Japan’s approach. Even Canberra’s close friendship with Tokyo has made little difference.

Wisely, both countries have cordoned off the dispute from other issues.

With hearings expected to begin this year, a verdict cannot come soon enough.

Australians deserve to know if international law allows the use of scientific research as a front for risky, often abhorrent and, in most cases, unnecessary commercial whaling.

In the meantime, the culling of whales cannot be scrutinized properly. In response, anti-whaling activists have been involved in clashes with Japanese government vessels in the Southern Ocean. A U.S. judge has labeled the protesters “pirates.”

In this climate the danger is that the hawkish Japanese government will become even more entrenched in its whaling views.

The international community has a duty to utilize plentiful resources without endangering scarce ones, but Japan is not cooperating. Objecting to Japan’s whaling policies does not, however, mean supporting extreme actions against its vessels.

Indeed, violent protests risk deterring the Japanese from compromise. To that end, the Australian government has been wise to limit its involvement.

As the whaling season ends, the clashes will diminish, but the court case in The Hague will again test Australia-Japan relations.

If Japan wins, Australia will need to re-energize efforts to reform the whaling commission to improve safeguards.

If Australia wins, Tokyo may push on toward commercial whaling anyway by agreeing to adapt its scientific program and stop the killing.

Either way, the case offers a chance to break the deadlock and encourage more work toward preventing cruel and risky overharvesting of whales.

Editorial by The Sydney Morning Herald, Australia

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