Hot Flash: Japan vs. the NGOs

If environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were to keep a list of their “most favored nations,” one would expect <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Japan to rank near the top.  As any visitor to Japan can attest (I've been there twice), the country's population of 120 million recycles enthusiastically.  The Japanese government supports the greens' beloved Kyoto Protocol-itself drafted in Japan.  And many Japanese companies loom large in the race to develop so-called “green” technologies.  Despite all this, once a year, the Japanese get a kick in the teeth from environmentalists.  But this year, the Japanese are kicking back. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />

What is causing the bad blood between Tokyo and the NGOs?  Despite all of Japan's pro-green policies, there is one Japanese policy the NGOs cannot abide: Japan's appetite for whale meat, a tradition with roots in Japan's age-old role as a seafaring nation.  Whale meat is not easy to come by these days.  In 1986, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) adopted a ban on commercial whale hunting.  Since then, Japan, Iceland, and Norway-the three leading pro-whaling countries-have harvested a modest 15,000 whales.  Of the three, the Japanese have been most dogged in questioning the ban's scientific basis.  At the Commission's yearly meetings, the Japanese government regularly questions members as to why the ban should continue, and argues that some kinds of whales can be harvested in a sustainable way.  In response, environmentalist groups regularly accuse Japan of “killing protected whales, selling illegal whale meat, and buying votes” at IWC meetings to overturn the ban.Last year, during IWC's June meeting in Berlin, one green NGO distributed a cartoon that depicted countries that share Japan's skepticism toward the ban as Tokyo's lapdogs.  The cartoon was so offensive that many prominent green groups-including Greenpeace, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, and World Wildlife Fund-distanced themselves from it.  Still, it illustrates the tone of NGO rhetoric at many of these meetings.  As Russian IWC representative Valentin Ilyashenko notes, this was not the first time environmentalist invective has gotten out of hand at a Commission meeting.  “We have seen and heard name-calling before at IWC meetings from some of the anti-whaling environmental [groups],” he told a reporter.  “We have been the victims of such abuse in the past.” While there were no reports of offensive cartoons at this year's recently concluded IWC gathering in Sorrento, Italy, the Commission announced that it planned to develop a “code of conduct” for NGOs that want to attend its meetings.  This is long overdue, and potentially an important victory for Japan.  Japan and various other IWC members have long complained about NGO antics at IWC meetings and asked the Commission to create a mechanism to deny over-aggressive NGOs accreditation to attend its gatherings.Some Japanese see the (mainly Western) NGOs' anti-whaling jihad as a form of international bullying.  There is some truth in that view.In the post-World War II explosion of international agencies, bodies and consulting groups, NGOs have found an ever-growing number of fora in which to push their agendas-often aggressively.  While the NGO movement's strength has been noted—The New York Times has called it a “second superpower”—there has not been a corresponding call for greater accountability of NGOs.The standoff between Japan and the NGOs raises some interesting sets of questions that the international community needs to address:

  • Are all NGO tactics equally valid?  Can NGOs go too far?  If they go over the line, should they be sanctioned?  If so, how?  What formal mechanisms should be in place to facilitate the sanctioning process?
  • The NGO movement frequently rushes to the defense of “indigenous” peoples whose traditions NGO activists claim are under attack by industrial development.  Why is it that the “indigenous” Japanese tradition of whale hunting and whale meat gets such short shrift from NGOs?
  • What is the proper role of NGOs in democratic governance?  To whom are NGOs accountable?  How much credence should a duly elected government like Japan's give to NGO claims?  And how much authority should an international body like the IWC have to create a code of conduct for NGOs?

If one good thing can come from this fight, it would be to spark a long-overdue discussion on NGO accountability to the global community.