Japan, Australia in showdown over whaling at int'l court

Japan and Australia met in court Wednesday in a legal showdown over Japan's whaling program in the Antarctic Sea that Australia claims violates international law.

Australia said Japan's so-called scientific whaling "lacks any justification" and called for its halt at the opening of oral hearings at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, while Japan awaited its turn to counter the claim next week.

The oral hearings lasting through July 16 are the final phase in proceedings for the case and the 16-member court will effectively decide whether Japan can continue its whaling program in the Antarctic Sea in the future.

The decision by the ICJ, which could come before year-end, will be final as there is no appeals court. It is the first time for Japan to be a party to an ICJ case, according to the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

Australia argues that Japan's whaling program is a cover for commercial whaling in breach of its obligations under the 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. Commercial whaling has been halted since a moratorium came into effect in 1986.

Japan argues its whaling is for scientific purposes and is conducted lawfully on the basis of Article 8 of the convention, which permits whaling for scientific research.

The country also says whale meat sold in its market complies with Article 8, which states any whales taken as part of research whaling shall be processed and the proceeds shall be dealt with in a manner instructed by government.

"There is a lot of misunderstanding about what we do, even within Japan," said a government official who declined to be named.

Before the court session began, Koji Tsuruoka, deputy foreign minister in charge of economic affairs who is representing the Japanese government, told reporters that Japan could win the understanding of "not just the judges but also the international community" if it can clearly state its stance before the court.

Australia took Japan to the ICJ in May 2010 after having attempted to resolve the issue diplomatically for several years with the support of the New Zealand government.

New Zealand is expected to provide its view as a third party in a session in the third week.

Japan has aimed to catch more than 900 minke whales each year since 2005 under the Antarctic whaling program, but its annual catch has dropped significantly from 853 in 2005 to 266 in 2011. Government officials cite attacks by antiwhaling activists as a reason for the decline.