Australia had sued Japan at the United Nations’ highest dispute-resolving court in the hope of ending whaling in the Southern Ocean.
Presiding judge Peter Tomka, reading a 12-4 decision by the court, said Japan had failed to justify the 850 minke whales it says it needs to catch every year under its Antarctic programme.
It also did not come close to catching the 50 fin and 50 humpback whales it had aimed for.
All that drew into doubt Japan’s assertion that its whaling was for scientific purposes, Mr Tomka said.
“The court concludes that the special permits granted by Japan for the killing, taking and treating of whales … are not ‘for purposes of scientific research’,” he said yesterday.
The ICJ ordered Japan to halt any issuing of whaling permits at least until the programme had been thoroughly revamped.
Noriyuki Shikata, a spokesman for the Japanese foreign ministry, told reporters his country “regrets and is deeply disappointed” by the decision.
But he added: “As a state that respects the rule of law… and as a responsible member of the global community, Japan will abide by the ruling of the court.”
Peter Garrett, the former Australian environment minister, who launched the legal action four years ago, said he felt vindicated by the decision.
“I’m absolutely over the moon, for all those people who wanted to see the charade of scientific whaling cease once and for all,” he said.
“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.”
Although the decision was a major victory for Australia and environmental groups opposed to whaling on ethical grounds, it will not mean the end of the practice.
Japan has a second, smaller scientific programme in the northern Pacific, which may now be subject to challenge.
Norway and Iceland also reject outright the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling imposed by the International Whaling Commission.
But environmental groups said yesterday’s decision was still a victory for their cause.
Activist Pete Bethune, a New Zealander who has clashed frequently with Japanese whalers while trying to stop their hunts, said “justice was served” by the ruling.
“The court dissected their scientific programme, pulled it to bits and it proved that the amount of science is tiny relative to the commercial aspects,” he said.
He said if Japan had prevailed, it could have led other countries to begin whaling in the Antarctic and eventually to a full commercial Japanese whaling programme.
Japan had argued that Australia’s suit was an attempt to force its cultural norms on Japan – the equivalent to Hindus demanding an international ban on killing cows.
Though consumption of whale meat has declined in popularity in Japan in recent years, it is still considered a delicacy by some, and most of the meat from Japanese hunts ends up being sold.
Japan’s programme was supposed to determine whether commercial whaling of some species could resume without leading to them being in danger of extinction.
The ICJ ruling noted that Japan had not considered a smaller programme or non-lethal methods to study whale populations. It also said Japan had cited only two scientific papers relating to its programme from 2005 to the present – a period during which it harpooned 3,600 minke whales.