Japan tries to buy international votes on whaling, Times of London says
AGADIR, Morocco — Accusations that Japan uses aid money and personal favors to buy votes have quietly circulated for years around the International Whaling Commission, which oversees the conservation of the whales that Japan regularly hunts.
Now, a sting operation by a London newspaper that secretly filmed officials from six developing countries negotiating for bribes has brought such allegations into the open, at least in the corridors of the commission's annual meeting.
The Sunday Times of London secretly filmed the officials talking with reporters who portrayed themselves as emissaries of a Swiss billionaire wanting anti-whaling votes at the commission's meeting in Morocco.
The six indicated that any offer from the Swiss would have to top what Japan already gives them. Tanzania's top delegate was quoted as saying he had accepted trips to Japan, where he was offered free "massages" in his hotel room, which he said he declined.
For some of Japan's harshest critics, the Sunday Times' catching officials on tape acknowledging they received benefits from Japan was proof of undue influence on the 88-nation commission, which in its most important meeting in decades is considering a proposal for a 10-year suspension of the 1986 ban on commercial whaling.
"Vote buying is Japan's dirty little secret at the IWC," said environmentalist Patrick Ramage, who has been attending conferences for 15 years. He called it "a slow-motion hostile takeover of an international forum." And although all powerful nations try to wield their influence, Japan's "multi-year sustained effort is really quite unique," he said Tuesday.
Japan denies any wrongdoing and says allegations of vote-buying are meant to "devaluate" Japan's position at the commission.
"It is national policy to support developing countries," said Hideki Moronuki of the Japanese ministry for agriculture, forestry and fisheries. "Do you think that kind of ODA [overseas development assistance] is some kind of bribe? I don't think so."
Japan insists its whaling is intended to advance scientific knowledge of whales, creatures about which much remains mysterious. But most of the animals end up as meat products rather than as lab specimens, and the Japanese say their continued whaling is a matter of national pride.
The Japanese government builds fisheries, harbors and schools and contributes to development budgets of more than 20 countries that consistently vote in Japan's interests at the International Whaling Commission and are likely to support whatever position it takes on the proposal.
The paper said the $6,000 hotel bill for the acting chairman of the Morocco conference, Anthony Liverpool, was prepaid with a credit card that the paper traced to Japan Tours and Travel Inc., based in Houston, Texas. Liverpool is a diplomat from Antigua and Barbuda and its ambassador to Japan.
When asked by the paper about accepting the money from Japanese interests, Liverpool was quoted as saying, "Yes, but there is nothing extremely odd about that."
The whaling commission was created after World War II to conserve and manage whale stocks. Tens of thousands of animals were killed each year until the commission adopted the moratorium, and now about 1,500 animals are killed each year by Japan, Norway and Iceland.
Influence peddling goes back decades. Birgit Sloth, then a delegate for the Danish government, recalls seeing the chief negotiator of a Caribbean nation pay his fees at a commission meeting in Britain in the early 1980s with a check drafted in Japanese yen.
"At that time no one paid much attention. Now it's done in a much more hidden way," she told the Associated Press.
Leslie Busby, then working for the Italy-based Third Millennium Foundation, compiled a 95-page report in 2007 on Japan's "vote consolidation operation." She said 28 countries have been recruited to the whaling commission as a result of Japanese aid -- including the landlocked African nation of Mali -- giving the regulatory agency roughly a 50-50 split between pro- and anti-whaling countries.
Busby said those aid-recipient nations consistently vote in support of Japanese.
"It makes it all meaningless. There's no point to debate the issues because positions are predetermined," she said in an interview.
In her report, Busby reproduces a 2002 letter from Grenada's accountant general asking the former agriculture minister what happened to missing funds paid by Japan in 1998 and 1999. It asked him to assist "with information on Japan's contributions to the government of Grenada for the International Whaling Commission for the stated period."
A few supporters of the three whaling countries have hunting traditions. But Japan also has regular backing from countries, like the African states, that never had an interest in whaling.
"Japan is doing a lot of things in West Africa. In return Japan asks these countries to support them at IWC meetings," said Mamadou Diallo, a former Senegalese government science researcher who now works for the World Wildlife Fund.
"It's a transaction, a sale. 'If I give you this, you give me that.' ... Yes, we can say it's a bribe, because normally our countries are not for whaling."
For developing countries, a vote at the commission may not be a high price to pay. Tiare Turang Holm says whaling is a peripheral issue for her country of Palau in the South Pacific. So voting "becomes an issue of our friends, our development partners."
And Japan is not the only donor country to apply pressure.
"But Japan is blatant about it, and very much ties votes to its support," said Sue Miller Taei of the Pacific Island Program, based in Samoa.
"I have directly seen Japan bully Pacific island states," said Taei, remembering an instance when a senior Japanese delegate led reluctant island delegates into a commission meeting for a vote. "For a long time those delegates couldn't even look me in the eye."
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-- Arthur Max, Associated Press
Photo: Yasue Funayama, right, the head of the Japanese delegation to the International Whaling Commission, waits for the meeting to open on June 21. Credit: Abdelhak Senna / AFP/Getty Images