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Planet Ark World Environment News Australia 'Seriously' Considering Whaling Challenge

Date: 16-Dec-09
Country: AUSTRALIA
Author: Rob Taylor

CANBERRA - An international legal challenge to Japan's yearly whale hunt near Antarctica is being seriously considered by Australia, with the controversial cull set to begin in weeks, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said on Friday.

Japan's new center-left government has promised to continue its annual scientific research whaling program and said on Friday there was no intention to review the policy, which has attracted widespread diplomatic and environmental condemnation.

"We don't accept Japan's premise of so-called scientific whaling," Rudd told local radio in Melbourne.

"We, if we cannot resolve this matter diplomatically, will take international legal action. I'm serious about it, I would prefer to deal with it diplomatically, but if we cannot get there, that's the alternative course of action," Rudd said.

Rudd's center-left government has been accused of backpedaling on previous threats of an International Court of Justice challenge to avoid damaging Australia's Japan trade relationship and glacial negotiations on a free trade pact.

A court challenge would lead to so-called provisional orders for Japan to immediately halt whaling ahead of a full hearing.

"A country like Japan is quite law-abiding. I doubt very much whether a country like Japan would risk ignoring a binding ruling by a leading international court," Australian international law expert Don Rothwell told Reuters.

Some legal experts believe the Japanese cull is in breach of several international laws and treaties, including the Antarctic Treaty System and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

Japan's whaling fleet has left harbor and is en route to the Southern Ocean to harpoon up to 935 minke whales and 50 fin whales, classified as endangered.

Anti-whaling activists have promised to disrupt the hunt. The hardline Sea Shepherd group was to leave an Australian port on Friday, joined by a New Zealand world record-holding powerboat, adding more speed to disruption efforts.

"We do not condone, indeed we condemn, dangerous or violent activities, by any of the parties involved, be it demonstrators or whalers," New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully and his Australian counterpart Stephen Smith said in a statement.

Commercial whaling was banned under a 1986 treaty. But the Japanese have continued to cull whales for research and to monitor their impact on fish stocks, deflecting criticism from anti-whaling nations like Australia, Britain and New Zealand.

Japan was Australia's top export destination in 2008, with two-way trade worth $58 billion. Canberra also maintained a $25 billion trade surplus on the back of coal and iron ore exports.

Australia and Japan also signed in 2007 a security pact strengthening military co-operation, striking Japan's first defense agreement with a country other than the United States.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama came to power in August promising a shift in Japan's domestic and international policies, but Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada said that did not include the annual whale cull.

"We have a tradition here in Japan of eating whale meat," Okada told Australian radio. "We do not think there is a need for a policy review at this point in time. I think we should try to discuss it without emotion and in a very calm way."

Australia has previously sent a customs ship to Antarctica to gather evidence for an international court challenge.

"We've tried to work our way through this diplomatically with the Japanese government. That's run into some obvious obstacles," Rudd said.

Japan maintains whaling is a cultural tradition and while most Japanese do not eat whale meat on a regular basis, many are indifferent to accusations that hunting the creatures is cruel.

(Editing by David Fox)

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