UN court to hear Australia bid to halt Japan whaling

Australia will fire the opening salvoes in a legal battle before the United Nations' highest court in June to try to stop Japan's whale hunt in Antarctica.

"The International Court of Justice... will hold public hearings in the case concerning whaling in the Antarctic, Australia versus Japan, from Wednesday 26 June," the Hague-based ICJ said in a statement Thursday.

Canberra took Tokyo to court on May 31, 2010, alleging "Japan's continued pursuit" of a large-scale whaling hunt, which Japan calls scientific research, put the nation in breach of international conventions and its obligation to preserve marine mammals and their environment.

Unlike Norway and Iceland, which openly flout the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling agreed through the International Whaling Commission (IWC), Japan hunts exploit a loophole that allows lethal scientific research.

Japan's annual whale hunt has long drawn worldwide criticism but Tokyo defends the practice, saying eating whale is a culinary tradition.

In Sydney on Friday, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, who will appear before the court, said in a statement: "Australia wants this slaughter to end.

"We will now have our day in court to establish, once and for all, that Japan's whaling hunt is not for scientific purposes and is against international law."

His statement went on: "The fixing of the date sets up the final stage in this case brought by the Australian Government. The oral hearings are the last phase of legal proceedings before the Court makes its decision.

"We hope the court will deliver its decision on the legality of Japan's whaling before the start of the next whaling season."

Both parties have already made written submissions.

Environment Minister Tony Burke said: "Australia's views on whaling are well known -- we condemn all commercial whaling, including Japan's so-called 'scientific' whaling.

"The Australian Government's decision to bring this legal action demonstrates our determination to end commercial whaling."

But Tokyo vowed to fight its corner.

"Japan will defend its whale hunt as it is within the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling rules, which is the founding document of the IWC," a Japanese fisheries agency official told AFP.

A Japanese foreign ministry official in charge of the case added: "We will argue that our whaling activity is being done legally."

Dreyfus and Solicitor-General Justin Gleeson will front the court from the opening day, followed a week later by Japan's representatives on July 2.

A ruling may not be handed down for several months.

Japan last week announced its whaling haul from the Southern Ocean was a "record low" this year, blaming "unforgivable sabotage" by activists.

The hunt netted 103 Antarctic minke whales, the lowest since "research whaling" began in 1987, blamed on the actions of the Sea Shepherd conservation group.

Canberra and New Zealand -- which will also make a submission at the ICJ hearings -- have been outraged by the hunt, with Burke saying last week Japan's latest whale tally "is 103 whales too many".

Established in 1945, the ICJ is the UN's highest judicial body and settles disputes between states.