PARIS -- The United Nations' highest court on Monday ordered Japan to halt its annual whaling hunt in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica, saying its present program was not being carried out for scientific purposes, as Japan has claimed.
In a 12-4 judgment, the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, found that Japan was in breach of its international obligations by catching and killing minke whales and issuing permits for hunting humpback and fin whales within the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, established by the International Whaling Commission.
Reading a summary of the judgment, presiding Judge Peter Tomka of Slovakia said the present "research program," dating to 2005, has involved the killing of 3,600 minke whales and a number of fin whales, but that its "scientific output to date appears limited." The ruling suggested instead that Japan's whaling hunt served political and economic reasons.
Lawyers attending the proceedings said there was a gasp in the audience when Judge Tomka ordered Japan to immediately "revoke all whaling permits" and not issue any new ones under the existing program.
The ruling is binding, and Japan cannot appeal.
No immediate reaction from Japan was available, although it has said it would abide by any judgment in the case. But a Japanese delegate said in earlier hearings that Japan might consider withdrawing from the whaling commission, which oversees management of the world's whale populations.
The court left open the possibility for future whale hunting if Japan redesigned its program. Tokyo has said it needs data to monitor the impact of whales on its fishing industry and to monitor the whale population's recovery from overfishing.
Australia, a former whaling country, brought the suit against Japan in 2010, accusing it of using a loophole to get around a 1986 worldwide moratorium on whaling.
The ruling drew immediate praise from environmental groups, including the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which has sent fast ships to the remote and icy waters to block and harass Japan's whaling fleet. "We are very happy with the backing of the International Court," Geert Vons, a Sea Shepherd representative, said after leaving the court. "We had never expected such a strong ruling, telling Japan to cancel all of its Southern Ocean licenses."
The court also suggested that Japan reconsider a second so-called scientific program in the northern Pacific, but the present case focused only on the Southern Hemisphere.