Whales, elephants and law makers

2008-07-28 00:00

EARLIER this month, I witnessed the cut and thrust of debate in the International Whaling Commission (IWC) around the partial lifting of the 1986 international moratorium on whaling; with the lifting of this moratorium being proposed by Japan and supported by Norway. In Pietermaritzburg.

It wasn’t exactly the IWC. But as a realistic simulation exercise involving 31 representatives from six continents (North America was technically present by virtue of Mexico’s participation), it was probably as close as I’ll ever get to attending a meeting of that august body set up in 1946 to look after whale stocks and regulate the whaling industry.

And what better way to teach negotiation and diplomacy skills than to have Australian environmental policy adviser and Antarctic expert Ewan McIvor, representing pro-whalers Japan, argue for a lifting of the ban on whaling and push for a secret ballot to decide the matter? And what better way to narrow the divide between the developed and developing world than by asking Niko Urho of Finland to represent Cote D’Ivoire or India to represent Nicaragua?

The simulated debate was part of a two-week course on international environmental law-making and diplomacy offered by the University of Joensuu, Finland and the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) and held on the local campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) earlier this month.

Now in its fifth year, the course is geared towards passing on past experience in international environmental law to future negotiators of multilateral agreements. Many of the participants I spoke to compared the experience with a meeting of the United Nations.

Ida Edwertz from the Swedish Environmental Ministry’s Division of International Affairs described the group of participants as “optimal”. “I expect to meet many of these people at future international meetings. I’ve learnt so much from them,” she said. “It’s like the United Nations.”

Dr Luther Rangreiji, a legal officer with the Indian ministry of external affairs, said the course helped to build capacity among developing states and raise awareness about the differences between developed and developing countries. “People can now perhaps understand why we take a particular stand on issues,” he said.

This year’s course had oceans as its theme, hence the discussions around whaling and other inputs on topics such as international fisheries, the Antarctic, marine genetic resources and the challenges of policing ports. To balance the theory, participants visited the Oceanographic Research Institute in Durban, the Natal Sharks Board in Umhlanga, and saw for themselves the dramatic evidence of coastal erosion and property damage along the KwaZulu-Natal coast.

UKZN law faculty’s deputy dean Professor Michael Kidd said interest in the course and its longevity (popular demand may mean another course is offered next year) reflects a growing interest in international environmental law, which is a relative latecomer to the field of international law.

Addressing participants, Professor of International Law Gerhard Loibl of the 250-year-old Diplomatic Academy in Vienna, said the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICFW) which gave rise to the IWC was inspired less by environmental concerns than around the need to control commercial activities.

One of the challenges facing international environmental law, said Loibl, is the variety of international organisations and treaties which deal with environmental issues. Although Unep comes the closest, there is no environmental equivalent to a body like the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is the guardian of conventions and protocols relating to the Geneva Conventions and which sets standards for international law on humanitarian issues.

The result is a situation in which law and policy makers are required to adopt an appropriate forum based on the kind of regulation or legal instrument they want to end up with, said Loibl.

Decisions around which international body to choose also rests on political factors because of the broad scope of “environmental issues”. “For example, is trade in genetically modified organisms an environmental or a trade issue, or both?” asked Loibl.

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