Human Interaction

Whale Wars Does Sea Shepherd Have Legal Authority?

posted: 05/15/12

Animal Planet presents this feature as a conversation with legal scholars. We draw no conclusions, other than that reasonable legal minds differ on these issues.

DR. TIMOTHY STEPHENS: "Sea Shepherd argues that they are enforcing international law on the high seas when no one else is prepared to step up to the plate. That's a very strong moral argument. It's not a very strong legal argument because we just don't accept that the law can be enforced in a kind of self-help or private way on the high seas. I mean, we don't really accept vigilantes in our society enforcing the law. We don't accept vigilantes on the high seas enforcing the law. As difficult as is to swallow, this is a problem that can't be combated by a few guys in some well-equipped vessels."

DR. DAVID CARON: "Now it's my understanding that this World Charter for Nature has been cited by Sea Shepherds as a basis for their authority, to undertake their actions. And that is simply not at all in that charter. The charter talks about duties on states. It does not say anything about who may enforce them. [...] That is the classic taking the law into your own hands. And there is no basis — no basis at all — in the World Charter for Nature for their doing so."

DR. TIMOTHY STEPHENS: "So the World Charter for Nature is a declaration that was made by the international community through the United Nations General Assembly, back in the 1980s. It's quite a general text. It basically tells us that we ought to protect nature for future generations, but it's not really a legally binding text. You can't really say that it's a law. It's more of a kind of policy document. A very important policy document, don't get me wrong, but it's not really a kind of charter in the sense we might understand it in terms of some kind of constitution or binding legal system. It's just a very general aspirational document that tells us what we ought to be aiming for in terms of protecting nature.

"I understand that Sea Shepherd relies very heavily on the World Charter for Nature, you know. Ever since Sea Shepherd was established, I think back in 1977, you then get the World Charter for Nature coming along in 1982, or thereabouts, and then you've got Sea Shepherd relying very heavily on the World Charter for Nature to justify its actions.

"Now, Sea Shepherd is absolutely right in terms of emphasizing the importance of the World Charter for Nature, but it only gets them so far. It tells us that we should protect nature. It doesn't tell us how we protect nature, and it certainly doesn't tell us that we can do certain vigilante type actions on the high seas, or in any other waters, for that matter, to protect nature. So it's quite a nonspecific document that doesn't really get Sea Shepherd where it wants to be.

DR. CHARLOTTE EPSTEIN: "The World Charter for Nature is a very beautiful and interesting document that was adopted by all the countries of the world at the United Nations General Assembly in 1982 ... It's a very beautiful document that recognizes [...] our dependence on the planet [where we] live, the importance of protecting the resources that we depend upon, and it's a very advanced document. [...] So it's a valuable piece of international law. Now, the Sea Shepherds claim that as their mandate.

"... The World Charter for Nature does stipulate that individuals have a duty to act. My only concern, I guess, would be, why act here and not elsewhere? [...] The problem is more the double standards by which the document is used. In other words, it's all very fine to claim it for the whales, but then why can't we use it for some of the other overly exploited resources, including the oceans themselves...?"

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