On July 28, Le Point, a French newspaper, titled « New dolphin massacre in the Faroe Islands » denouncing the grindadráp, a tradition of whaling. While this title of the article leaves no room for doubt as to the rejection of such a practice in the eyes of its author, the text adds that such a practice is a « bloody orgy of sadistic violence » quoting Captain Paul Watson of the NGO Sea Shepherd.
For several centuries, the inhabitants of the Faroe Islands that are part of the Kingdom of Denmark, are the cause of pilot whale hunting yearly. These hunts allow them to feed themselves since the early days. Yet, what in the past must have been a necessity of living and what the article presents as a « tradition » receives today the most virulent criticism (Van Ginkel, 2005*, p 84-86) from a part of civil society calling for its pure and simple suppression in order to preserve these mammals. On the other hand, and from the point of view of the inhabitants of the Faroe Islands, this is indeed a tradition, a door of cultural identity, deserving, by the same token, to be safeguarded. But, can one qualify the grindadráp of tradition? (Van Ginkel, 2005, p.87). And if so, can it be safeguarded under international law?
The one and only multilateral convention dedicated in particular to traditions was adopted in 2003 and designated as the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. It defines this heritage as « the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge and skills […] that communities […] recognize as part of their cultural heritage ». This heritage « transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities… in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity ». Is grindadráp an element of intangible cultural heritage within the meaning of the Convention? Can it be saved as such?
Rob van Ginkel, from the University of Amsterdam, emphasizes that this tradition comes from the Vikings, that it involves entire communities and that it underlines the fact that the festivities surrounding it bring these communities together (Van Ginkel, 2005, p.82). He adds that grindadráp has become a symbol of cultural identity for the inhabitants of the Faroe Islands. Consequently, in our eyes, grindadráp can be described as an element of intangible cultural heritage within the meaning of the Convention and thus be safeguarded in the interests of its guardians. However, what is to be thought of the object of this patrimony, namely the pilot whale, and its practice of sacrificing entire bans? What can be done to defend the environment and the animal causes? Should culture supplant nature?
The detractors of grindadráp denounce the lack of vital character of it given the capacity of the inhabitants to feed otherwise, the « barbarity » with which the pilot whales are « massacred » and the use of modern techniques as obstacles to the recognition of grindadráp as a tradition (Van Ginkel, 2005, p.83). If we willingly acknowledge the brutality of grindadráp in the very act of killing, although modern slaughter techniques are equally debatable, the argument of seeking a vital need to qualify a cultural practice and the use of traditional techniques cannot be recognized as legitimate arguments.
As a matter of fact, traditions such as songs or dances are and remain elements of intangible cultural heritage although they are not endowed with a vital character such as the need to feed or to drink. The use of modern techniques to provide a cultural practice cannot call into question its traditional character since the 2003 Convention recognizes the evolutionary character of heritage in relation to its environment. However, despite these developments in the direction of the recognition of a cultural practice and therefore a need for being safeguarded, grindadráp is an illegal practice with regard to certain instruments of international law relating to the conservation of the environment.
Indeed, on September 19th 1979 the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats was adopted. The Kingdom of Denmark has ratified this Convention and is therefore bound by it. Article 6 intends to « ensure the special protection of the wild fauna species specified in Appendix II ». The pilot whale or globicephala macrorhynchus is listed in this appendix. The article adds: « The following will in particular be prohibited for these species: (a) all forms of deliberate capture and keeping and deliberate killing ». In addition, ASCOBANS (Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic, North East Atlantic, Irish and North Seas), which entered into force in 1994 and ratified by Denmark, applies to « all small cetaceans » which includes pilot whales. Its Annex provides that « the Parties shall endeavor to establish (a) … prohibition under national law, of the intentional taking and killing of small cetaceans […], and (b) the obligation to release immediately any animals caught alive and in good health « . Thus, Denmark violates the Berne Convention and ASCOBANS by letting the inhabitants of the Faroe Islands continue the grindadráp.
The question of whether culture can supplant nature arises no longer here. However, if, legally speaking, the answer to this case seems to be facilitated by the presence of other biodiversity conservation conventions with which the 2003 Convention cannot be in contradiction, in fact it is much more complicated for a government to forbid cultural practices that are firmly rooted in a community and provide them with a sense of belonging.
This is why the grindadráp still continues today violating public international law and thus underlines the hierarchy in the spirit of this local community between culture and nature.
* Van Ginkel Rob, “Killing Giants of the Sea: Contentious Heritage and the Politics of Culture” (2005) 15:1, Journal of Mediterranean Studies, 71.