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Australia takes its legal battle to stop Japanese whaling in the Antarctic before the UN's highest court on Wednesday, in an emotionally-charged case activists say is make-or-break for the giant marine mammals' future.
Canberra will argue before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague that Japan is exploiting a loophole by continuing to hunt whales as scientific research in spite of a 1986 International Whaling Commission ban on commercial whaling.
"Australia's views on whaling are well established -- we strongly oppose all commercial whaling, including so-called 'scientific' whale hunting by Japan, said Attorney-General Markus Dreyfus, who is to front Australia's arguments at the Hague court.
"We want to see the practice halted once and for all," Dreyfus said ahead of the case, due to start at 10:00 am (0800 GMT).
Canberra took Tokyo to court in 2010, saying that more than 10,000 whales have been killed since 1988 as a result of Japan's JARPA and JARPA II research programmes, allegedly putting the Asian nation in breach of international conventions and its obligation to preserve marine mammals and their environment.
While Norway and Iceland have whaling programmes in spite of the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling agreed through the International Whaling Commission (IWC), Japan exploits a loophole that allows lethal scientific research, Canberra said.
In its application, Australia accuses Japan of breaching its obligation to "observe in good faith the zero catch limit in relation to the killing of whales."
Japan's annual whale hunts have long drawn worldwide criticism, but Tokyo said it would robustly defend the practice that also puts whale meat on dinner plates back home.
Tokyo says the research is conducted to "better understand the sustainability of whale stocks" and it does not exclude a push for commercial whale hunting to be authorised in the future.
"We are however very much paying attention to the conservation of whales," Japanese government spokesman Noriyuki Shikata told AFP on Tuesday, adding that the research was providing "very important data to understand whale stocks in the Antarctic."
Shikata said Japan was "confident that it has a good case" in its first-ever appearance before ICJ judges.
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida added that "Japan will fully engage with the case so that the country's position and thinking will be understood."
Militant anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd, which will have observers at the ICJ, said it was a make-or-break case for the sea mammals.
"If nothing happens now, nothing else is going to happen," Geert Vons, the group's director in the Netherlands told AFP ahead of the case.
A ruling in the hearing, in which New Zealand will also make a submission, is not expected for several months.
Established in 1945, the ICJ is the UN's highest judicial organ and it settles disputes between states. It is the only one of six principal UN organs not located in New York.