THE HAGUE — The battle over Japan’s controversial whaling program is moving from the high seas to the United Nations’ highest court.
Australia opens its case Wednesday at the International Court of Justice, arguing that Japan’s annual hunt in the icy waters around Antarctica is an illegal commercial activity outlawed since 1986 by an International Whaling Commission moratorium.
‘‘What Japan is doing is commercial whaling, pure and simple,’’ Australia’s agent to the court, Bill Campbell, said.
Australia is hoping that the court will issue a ruling banning Japanese whaling by the year’s end, soon enough to halt the next whaling season.
The whaling fleet generally leaves Japan each December to begin harpooning whales in the Antarctic Ocean, where Australia declared a whale sanctuary in 1999.
Japan argues that the annual hunt is legal under Article Eight of the 1946 International Convention for Regulation of Whaling, which allows governments to grant permits authorizing their citizens ‘‘to kill, take, and treat whales for purposes of scientific research.’’