Updated: 04/01/2014 06:46 | By Agence France-Presse

Fears Japan may sidestep whaling ban

Australia and New Zealand on Tuesday hailed a landmark court decision that Japan must halt an annual Antarctic whale hunt despite fears it may try to sidestep the order.

Fears Japan may sidestep whaling ban

Image released by the Sea Shepherd Australia Ltd showing three minke whales dead on the deck of the Japanese factory ship Nisshin Maru inside a Southern Ocean sanctuary on January 5, 2014 - by Tim Watters

The United Nations' Hague-based International Court of Justice on Monday ruled that Japan's whaling programme was a commercial activity disguised as science and said it must revoke existing whaling licences.

Tokyo said it would honour the ruling but did not exclude the possibility of future whaling programmes, with New Zealand expressing concerns Japan may try to circumvent the order.

"The ICJ decision sinks a giant harpoon into the legality of Japan’s whaling programme," New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully said. 

"It still does leave Japan with a decision to make after they've digested this which is to look at whether they try to devise a new programme that is scientifically based that they could embark upon whaling in the Southern Ocean again.

"Our task is to make sure that we carry out a diplomatic conversation that dissuades them from embarking on that course."

Australia, backed by New Zealand, hauled Japan before the ICJ in 2010 in a bid to end the annual Southern Ocean hunt with Tokyo accused of exploiting a legal loophole in the 1986 ban on commercial whaling that allowed the practice to collect scientific data.

While Australian Attorney General George Brandis was subdued in his response to the decision, with Tony Abbott due to make his first trip To Japan as prime minister in a week, former environment minister Peter Garrett said he felt vindicated.

"I'm absolutely over the moon, for all those people who wanted to see the charade of scientific whaling cease once and for all," said Garrett, who helped launch the legal action -- the first time any country had used an international court to try to stop whaling.

"I think (this) means without any shadow of a doubt that we won't see the taking of whales in the Southern Ocean in the name of science."

Japan had argued that its JARPA II research programme was aimed at studying the viability of whale hunting, but the ICJ found that it had failed to examine ways of doing the research without killing whales, or at least while killing fewer whales.

The decision came less than a week before Abbott heads to Tokyo in a bid to finalise a free trade agreement with Australia's second-largest trading partner. 

Brandis said "I'm sure it wouldn't", when asked if the trade deal could be derailed by the whaling fallout.

"The fact that Australia and Japan were able to be in dispute on this narrow issue ... and to agree to differ, but to nevertheless maintain an excellent relationship ... I think demonstrates very clearly what a strong relationship and what an enduring relationship this is," he added.

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