Sunday, 21 February 2010

Japan says Australia whale threats won't hurt ties

Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada (R) 
and his Australian counterpart Stephen Smith 
with wreaths at the State War Memorial of 
Western Australia in Perth

PERTH: Japan's foreign minister Sunday said it was "unfortunate" Australia had threatened legal action against Tokyo's controversial whaling programme, but he did not believe it would hurt ties.

"It's very unfortunate the Australian side has indicated it will take action in an international court," Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada told reporters.

"Should action become a reality Japan will seek to represent its case with the IWC (International Whaling Commission) that its activities are legal."

He added that the issue should not affect relations between the two countries.

Okada met with his Australian counterpart Stephen Smith on Sunday for diplomatic talks which were overshadowed by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's threat to take Japan to court over its Southern Ocean whaling.

Smith said Australia remained hopeful of a diplomatic solution but reiterated Rudd's vow to seek arbitration in the International Court of Justice if negotiations failed.

He said Australia would push a proposal at the IWC for whaling to be phased out in the Great Southern Ocean over a "reasonable period of time".

"And that is a position that we will put to the International Whaling Commission in the very near future, potentially as early as tomorrow," Smith added.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd Friday bluntly warned Tokyo, a major trading partner and top export market, it had until November to reduce its whale catch to zero, or face action in the International Court of Justice.

Australia, along with New Zealand, has consistently opposed Japan's killing of hundreds of whales each year, which it carries out via a loophole in an international moratorium that allows "lethal research".

Okada is the first official from Japan's new government to visit Australia, and emphasised before leaving Tokyo that their whaling activities were legal, carried out in public waters and in accordance with international conventions.

He and Rudd had a "frank discussion on whaling" in Sydney on Saturday, and a spokesman said Japan still hoped for a diplomatic agreement on the issue.

For the past six years Japanese harpooners have been pursued by militant environmental activists from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and this year clashes between them have been particularly fierce.

Okada and Smith jointly condemned the violence, which has seen a Sea Shepherd powerboat sunk, and resulted in the detention of one of their activists.

A group of about ten protesters from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society earlier confronted the pair as they laid remembrance wreaths in Perth's war cemetery in a silent protest against the annual whale hunt.

"For the past two years, by its lack of action, the Rudd government has effectively given Japan the green light to ram and sink ships and kill endangered species," a Sea Shepherd spokesman said after the protest.

Rudd had previously threatened Japan with legal action, and the spokesman said it was "hard to believe" he was serious this time.

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