Judges at the highest U.N. court ordered Japan to halt its whaling in the Antarctic, rejecting Japan's argument that its whaling was for scientific purposes, not for human consumption. (Reuters)

The International Court of Justice on Monday ordered a temporary halt to Japan’s Antarctic whaling program, ruling that it is not for scientific purposes, as the Japanese government had claimed.

Australia had sued Japan at the United Nations’ highest court for resolving disputes between nations in hopes of ending whaling in the icy Southern Ocean.

Reading a 12 to 4 decision by the court’s 16-judge panel, Presiding Judge Peter Tomka said Japan had given no reason for its target of 850 minke whales annually and often did not meet the goal. Japan gave no defense of why it needed to kill that many for study purposes, Tomka said. And the “research” program had produced just two peer-reviewed scientific papers since 2005.

All that cast doubt on Japan’s assertion that its whaling is for scientific purposes, he said.

“The court concludes that the special permits granted by Japan for the killing, taking, and treating of whales . . . are not ‘for purposes of scientific research,’ ” Tomka said.

The court ordered Japan to halt any issuing of whaling permits at least until the program has been thoroughly revamped.

Noriyuki Shikata, a spokesman for the Japanese Foreign Affairs Ministry, told reporters that the country “regrets and is deeply disappointed” by the decision. But “as a state that respects the rule of law . . . and as a responsible member of the global community, Japan will abide by the ruling of the court,” he said.

Former Australian environment minister Peter Garrett, who helped launch the suit four years ago, said he felt vindicated by the decision.

“I’m absolutely over the moon, for all those people who wanted to see the charade of scientific whaling cease once and for all,” Garrett told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio. “I think [this] means without any shadow of a doubt that we won’t see the taking of whales in the Southern Ocean in the name of science.”

Although the decision is a major victory for Australia and environmental groups that oppose whaling on ethical grounds, it will not mean the end of whaling. Japan has a second, smaller scientific program in the northern Pacific, which also may be subject to challenge. Meanwhile, Norway and Iceland reject outright a 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling imposed by the International Whaling Commission.

Japan had argued that Australia’s suit was an attempt to force its cultural norms on Japan, equivalent to Hindus demanding an international ban on the killing of cows.

— Associated Press