Occasionally there is a real win for wildlife. Monday 31st March 2014 will go down in history as one of those memorable occasions. The United Nations court, the International Court of Justice, ruled against Japan in a case brought by Australia, that Japan has been using science to mask its commercial whaling operation in Antarctic waters.

 The Court found that:

 Japan’s whaling in Antarctica does not comply with the IWC’s definition of scientific permit whaling

 That Japan is in contravention with the moratorium on commercial whaling

 That Japan is in contravention with the moratorium on factory ship whaling

 That Japan is in contravention of the Southern Ocean Sanctuary

Based on these findings, the Court ordered Japan to cease all Antarctic whaling and not to issue any more permits to whale in Antarctica

It was a cleaner victory than many of us could have hoped for. But it also raises many additional questions about the future of the "scientific permits" loophole and the trade in whale meat.

But what does this victory tell us about how people view whales?

This case is unique in the history of the ICJ. Australia didn’t engage in this diplomatically costly legal battle with Japan over a resource that they believe is theirs to use, instead of Japan’s. Instead, the Australians argued that the "research" that Japan has been conducting every austral summer in the Southern Ocean does not qualify as justifiable science in the modern era.

But why does that matter?  Would the Australian Government have run a similar case for single-celled plankton, of no commercial value, floating in the Southern Ocean? Even if it were also unjustifiable science?

It seems unlikely. The reason then for the case – and perhaps too for its victory – tells us a great deal about the change in attitudes towards whales: no longer viewed as resources or objects to be utilized, they are now recognized as large, social mammals who have the capacity to suffer extensively as a result of hunting.

This essay was written with Philippa Brakes, Senior Biologist with the organization Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC).

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's story: Saving moon bears (with Jill Robinson; see also), Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservation (see also)and Why dogs hump and bees get depressed (see also). Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistence will be published fall 2014.

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