THE HAGUE (AFP) - The UN's top International Court of Justice will rule on Monday whether Japan has the right to hunt whales in the Antarctic, in an emotive case activists say is make-or-break for the giant mammal's future.
Presiding Judge Peter Tomka is to read the court's ruling on the matter at 0800 GMT (4pm Singapore time) at the ICJ's historic headquarters at the Peace Palace in The Hague.
Australia in 2010 hauled Japan to the ICJ in an attempt to torpedo whale hunting in the Southern Ocean, a practice Canberra says is a thinly-disguised commercial exploit under cover of scientific research.
While Norway and Iceland have commercial whaling programmes in spite of a 1986 International Whaling Commission (IWC) moratorium, Japan insists its programme is scientific, while admitting that the resulting meat ends up on plates back home.
Tokyo is accused of exploiting a legal loophole in the 1986 ban on commercial whaling that allows the practice to collect scientific data.
Australia is now asking the world court to order Japan to stop its JARPA II research programme and revoke "any authorisations, permits or licences" to hunt whales in the region.
Tokyo said it would vigorously defend the practice which it maintained was for scientific purposes only.
But Canberra said since 1988 Japan has slaughtered more than 10,000 whales under the programme, allegedly putting the Asian nation in breach of international conventions and its obligation to preserve marine mammals and their environment.
In its application before the world court, Australia accused Japan of failing to "observe in good faith the zero catch limit in relation to the killing of whales".
Japanese officials declined to comment on specifics ahead of the ruling, but a Fisheries Agency official told AFP it maintained the view that "Japan's whaling is purely for the purposes of obtaining scientific data, so that whale resources can be sustainably maintained".
Tokyo has also consistently defended the practice of eating whale meat as a culinary tradition and vowed it would "never stop whaling".
But Japanese officials told AFP ahead of the ruling that Tokyo would accept the ICJ's verdict, set up after World War II to rule in disputes between countries.
Japan in April last year announced its whaling haul from the Southern Ocean was at a record low because of "unforgivable sabotage" by activists from the militant environmental group Sea Shepherd.
Sea Shepherd, which called the ICJ case make-or-break for whales in the Southern Ocean, said it hoped for a decision that would ultimately protect the giants of the sea.
Established in 1945, the ICJ is the UN's highest judicial body and the only one of five principal UN bodies not located in New York.
The ICJ's judgements are binding and cannot be appealed.