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February 2009

[Forthcoming (May 2009) in the Asia Pacific Journal of Environmental Law]

Every Australian summer, relations with Japan heat up over whaling. This New Year of the Ox is no exception. On 8 January 2009, a Japanese official reportedly called on Australia to deny port access to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s protest ship, which has begun impeding the lethal research underway again by the Japanese whaling fleet in the Southern Ocean. But there is uncertainty over whether the ship’s activities amount to the alleged ‘sabotage’, and about the implications under national and international law. The editor of The Australian has also argued that Sea Shepherd is ‘On the wrong course’, and that Captain ‘Paul Watson’s zealotry at sea will not stop Japanese whaling’.

On the other hand, as a practical matter, it is hard for Australia to refuse entry to the ship. Sea Shepherd renamed it the Steve Irwin, after the nation’s recently-deceased iconic figure for conservationism – still (in)famous for his own larrikin image. Such symbolism, and the public photo of Paul Watson ‘standing resolute beneath a skull-and-crossbones flag’ highlighted by the editorialist, illustrates the impact of images and wider discourse in framing the contested issue of whaling. And that is the main thesis of USydney’s Dr Charlotte Epstein, in her new book on The Power of Words in International Relations: Birth of an Anti-Whaling Discourse (MIT Press, 2008, Cambridge, Mass. /
London, England (distributed in Australia by Footprint Books), ISBN 978-0-262-55069-7, xii + 333 pages). Her book should be required reading for government officials and others interested in this issue in Australia, Japan and beyond, because the work also helps explain the irony of each country adopting mutually contradictory positions when it comes to whaling. Economic and political interests do partly explain such internally inconsistent positions, but they also seem more likely to prevail when such material interests interact with a broader ‘discourse’, which can persist in different forms in different countries at different times.

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