Anti-whaling activists are claiming a major victory after the UN's International Court of Justice ruled Japan must halt its whaling programme in the Antarctic.
It agreed with Australia, which brought the case in May 2010, that the programme was not for scientific research.
Japan said it would abide by the decision but added it "regrets and is deeply disappointed by the decision.” It had argued the suit was an attempt to impose its cultural norms on Japan, where whalemeat is considered a delicacy.
Former Sea Shepherd campaigner Peter Bethune, who spent five months in a Japanese jail after being arrested during a 2010 protest in the southern ocean, was jubilant.
"To come here today to this court and be vindicated – it's an amazing day," he says. "I was paraded around like a common criminal and yet I was fighting something that I always knew was illegal and to have it proven here today, in the highest court in the world, I couldn't be happier."
Mr Bethune said he made sure he was able to hear in person the judgment in The Hague by spending the night in a sleeping bag outside the court.
Limited scientific output
Reading out the near two-hour judgment, Presiding Judge Peter Tomka said the court had decided, by 12 votes to four, Japan should withdraw all permits and licences for whaling in the Antarctic and refrain from issuing any new ones.
It said Japan had caught some 3600 minke whales since its current programme began in 2005 but the scientific output was limited.
Japan signed up to a moratorium on whaling in 1986, but continued whaling in the north and south Pacific under provisions that allowed for scientific research. Norway and Iceland rejected the provision and continued commercial whaling.
It has argued that minke whales and a number of other species are plentiful and that its whaling activities are sustainable.
New Zealand was initially opposed to taking the issue ot the World Court, fearing a rebuff would mean even more whale slaughtering.
But it supported Australia’s court action, which resulted in a three-week-long hearing held last year.
Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully has also welcomed the decision, saying it was better than could be expected.
“The ICJ decision sinks a giant harpoon into the legality of Japan’s whaling programme: JARPA II,” he says. “New Zealand has consistently opposed Japan’s so-called ‘scientific’ whaling, which is a practice that is deeply offensive to many New Zealanders."
While the judgment effectively means an end to all whaling in the southern oceans, Mr McCully says the door is still open for Japan to amend its scientific programme but he hopes "diplomatic conversations" will prevent that.