Food security – Also an issue for the IWC

Food security – Also an issue for the IWC

(Note: This article will be updated following the presentation of the revised draft resolution and the Commission’s decision on the revised draft)


The ongoing 68th meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) currently ongoing in Portoroz, Slovenia, is a comparably peaceful meeting. In the past, it was marked by heated arguments amongst the Parties to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW), especially with regard to maintaining or lifting the moratorium on commercial whaling. This zero-catch-quota was put in place in 1982 and became effective in 1985/86.

While commercial whaling has been banned, whale hunts for subsistence purposes for aboriginal peoples have not. Since the imposition of the moratorium, this hunt has become a whaling category referred to as ‘Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling’ (ASW). ASW is currently carried out and recognised in four countries: USA (Alaska), Greenland, Russia (Chukotka) and St Vincent & the Grenadines (Bequia). A crucial element for the recognition of ASW is the nutritional needs of indigenous/aboriginal hunters which are being fulfilled by the hunt for whales.

In order for ASW to take place, the IWC has to approve quotas for specific whale species. While these quotas were subject to a review and renewal every six years, at IWC67 in 2018 it was decided to automatically renew the quotas every seven years, unless the IWC’s Scientific Committee and ultimately the Commission itself objects (Sellheim, 2018). The ongoing meeting has not questioned the quotas.

While ASW goes unchallenged, Japan – being an IWC member until 2019 – has time and again tried to establish a new category of whaling: small-type coastal whaling (STCW). Japan has consistently argued that merely a small quota for its coastal communities for just two species would be needed since also its non-indigenous whalers are dependent on whales as a food source. This, however, has been repeatedly rejected by the Commission since it was considered to be a resumption of commercial whaling.

One might assume that with Japan’s withdrawal from the IWC, the matter would be resolved. This is not the case, however. For the present meeting, Gambia, Guinea, Cambodia, and Antigua & Barbuda have tabled a resolution on food security. While the four proponents are all non-whaling countries, they nevertheless all are developing countries. The proposed resolution is therefore an attempt to establish whales as a food source also for non-indigenous whalers in the future.

The original draft resolution

The Preamble

The tabled draft resolution comprises 20 preambular paragraphs (recitals) and five operative paragraphs. The Preamble is a stark reminder of the importance of marine species for the nutritional needs of the people(s) of the world. On a United Nations level, it is the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), which has underlined this importance on numerous occasions. It is therefore not surprising that the draft resolution makes consistent reference to the FAO and its strategic objectives. As the draft stipulates, “responsible and sustainable use of fisheries and aquaculture resources” (Recital 4) and “improved conservation and utilization of aquaculture resources” (Recital 5) are key elements of the FAO’s mission. The use of whales would thus fall under these objectives.

In Recital 6, the draft refers to the 4th recital of the ICRW in which reference is made to the use of whale stocks without nutritional distress (Recital 6). This reference is future-oriented: while there may not be any nutritional distress at the moment, there may certainly be nutritional distress in the future. The draft resolution therefore does not describe a status quo, but aims to establish whales as a future food source. This goes hand in hand with reference to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) and the right to an adequate standards of living (Recital 7). 

Recitals 8—11 provide a normative basis for the draft resolution. They present arguments from documents, meetings and bodies – the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, UN Sustainable Development Goal 14, and the  United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA). The mentioned documents do not have any legally-binding status, but which provide for soft-law foundations for the draft resolution. The recitals underline the anthropocentric gist of the draft resolution: While reference is made to the sustainable use of ocean resources, the recitals can be interpreted as making use of whales beyond subsistence use, i.e. a call for a re-opening of commercial whaling. Especially reference to UNDESA underlines that human well-being (and not the conservation of whales) stands at the centre of attention of this draft resolution. 

In Recital 12, the draft resolution underlines the (potential) importance of whales for developing countries, yet not by mentioning whales, but rather by mentioning the fisheries sector. Even though the proponents are non-whaling countries, the International Covenant for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) to which most of IWC Members are Parties, recognises in article 11 “the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food […]” and “the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger […].” In combination with ‘Common Article I’ (especially Article I.2) of both the ICESCR and the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which reads that “[a]ll peoples may, for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources without prejudice to any obligations arising out of international economic co-operation […]”, the draft resolution could be considered an IWC-geared version of these articles.

Recitals 13 refers to whales as a resource for thousands of years, thereby aiming to legitimise whaling by relying on historic use. It aims to show that opposition to whaling is a very recent phenomenon which stands in contradiction to common human interaction with whales.

Recitals 14—16 return to the FAO, its strategic objectives, the importance of food security for the world’s poorest and the need for responsible and sustainable management of ocean resources. Important in this regard is the point that the draft resolution refers to the FAO-membership of IWC Members. It appears to ask: What is the point of being member to an organisation if its strategic visions are simply ignored if they do not fit politically? It can be argued that the application of an organisation’s strategic objectives (!) in cases where they politically fit can be considered cherry-picking and not a normative support for the organisation.

Reference to the world’s cultural diversity in Recitals 17—19 provides another important backdrop against which the draft resolution should be read. However, it can be argued that there is no necessity to discuss cultural diversity in this context since ASW exists (as Recital 17 confirms). The affirmation of solidarity with whaling communities (their nutritional needs, cultural identities and livelihoods) in Recital 18 would mean a change in course of the IWC since it allows recourse in order to show that the IWC has indeed expressed support for whaling communities, irrespective of whether they are aboriginal or not. In a similar vein, the affirmation of food security, livelihoods and cultural identity (Recital 19) in order to reach the UN Sustainable Development Goals could be an important game-changer for the IWC. 

By mentioning the visions of the FAO and the IWC, the importance of membership in both organisations and the resulting alignment of their visions is highlighted again (Recital 20). This recital essentially underlines the points of Recitals 14—17 and forces IWC Members to rethink the value of their FAO membership. 

The operative paragraphs

The first operative paragraph provides another normative background by affirming article 25 of the UDHR. This article underlines the right of all persons to an adequate standard of living, including food. Given this background, the paragraph appears misplaced as it can be read in line with the other preambular paragraphs since it does not contain any operative elements.

The second operative paragraph is directed at the Parties by urging them to take into consideration nutritional needs, cultural identity and livelihoods when making decisions. This would mean an ‘anthropogenisation’ of IWC decision-making by placing increased focus on the interests of humankind. An adoption of the draft resolution with an operative paragraph such as this would mean a fundamental shift of the organisation since every decision, even in the Conservation Committee, should take into account the interests and concerns of human beings.

The same can be said about the third operative paragraph which underlines the anthropogenic nature of the draft resolution by placing emphasis on economic benefits stemming from ocean resources and ecosystems. A focus on blue economy and blue growth corresponds to developments under SDG14 and can be found in economies all over the world. This operative paragraph therefore re-emphasises the importance of blue growth and blue economy initiatives and their relevance for societies worldwide.

The establishment of an ad-hoc committee on the question of how to consider food security when making changes to the Schedule comprises the fourth operative paragraph of the tabled draft resolution. Such an ad-hoc committee would place greater emphasis on broader issues affecting humans. The establishment of such a committee would correspond to developments internationally (e.g. following the provisions of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples [UNDRIP] or the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas [UNDROP]). It would adjust the IWC to UN-approved criteria pertaining to participation of indigenous peoples and local communities.

The final operative paragraph underlines the importance of the FAO in this regard can calls for more interaction between the IWC and the FAO. It abstains from making concrete suggestions on how this cooperation is to occur.

The Commission’s response

Since many questions have remained open, after the first presentation of the draft resolution the decision on whether or not to adopt it was postponed until Thursday, 20 October. A revised draft, based on the work of a working group on the draft, will be presented and decided upon.


Sellheim, N. (2018). Quotas, Cultures, and Tensions. Recent Schedule Amendments for Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. Current Developments in Arctic Law 6: 4–16.

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