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Japan faces move to ban all whaling

Japan's annual whale hunt is a commercial slaughter of marine mammals dressed up as science, lawyers have told the United Nations' highest court as they asked for it to be banned.

Australia's case at the International Court of Justice, supported by New Zealand, is the latest step in years of attempts by governments and environmental groups to halt the Japanese whaling fleet's annual trips to harpoon minke and fin whales for what Tokyo argues is scientific research allowed under international law.

Australia calls the research claim a front for a commercial hunt that puts whale meat, considered a delicacy in Japan, on plates across the country. Commercial whaling was halted by a 1986 moratorium.

"Japan seeks to cloak its ongoing commercial whaling in the lab coat of science," Australia's agent to the court, Bill Campbell told the 16-judge panel in the Great Hall of Justice in The Hague.

"You don't kill 935 whales in a year to conduct scientific research. You don't even need to kill one whale to conduct scientific research," he said.

Japan insists its hunt is legal under a 1946 convention regulating whaling. "Japan's research programmess have been legally conducted for the purposes of scientific research, in accordance with the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling," Japan's deputy minister for foreign affairs Koji Tsuruoka said outside the court. "Australia's claim is invalid. Japan's research whaling has been conducted for scientific research in accordance with international law."

But Australia argued that the scientific whaling programme, under which thousands of whales have been killed in factory ships plying Antarctic waters, was set up simply to sidestep the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling. "No other nation, before or since, has found the need to engage in lethal scientific research on anything like this scale," Australian solicitor-general Justin Gleeson told the judges.

Japan's government claims the research is needed to provide data on whale populations so that the international ban on commercial hunt can be re-examined or hopefully lifted eventually based on scientific studies.

Australia is presenting its legal arguments this week and Japan will make its case starting July 2. New Zealand also gets a chance to outline its arguments on July 8.

The Sea Shepherd environmentalist group, whose pursuit of Japanese whalers ensures the hunt makes news each year, said that the opening of the case was a victory for whales and vindication of the group's controversial tactics in confronting the harpooners in the icy waters of the Southern Ocean.

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