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Rainbow Warrior: 30 Years Later, Will France Ever Apologize for Fatal Bombing of Greenpeace Ship?

Next month marks the 30th anniversary of a turning point in the history of Greenpeace.

Next month marks the 30th anniversary of a turning point in the history of Greenpeace. On July 10th, 1985 the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior was bombed by French government agents and sunk in a harbor in Auckland, New Zealand. The ship was preparing to head to sea to protest against French nuclear bomb tests in the South Pacific. Greenpeace photographer Fernando Pereira was killed in the attack. Our guest Peter Willcox was the captain of the ship and on board when the boat was blown up.


AMY GOODMAN: Bonnie Prince Billie, “Black Captain.” Revised for Peter Willcox who is our guest today. That’s right, we’re joined by Peter Willcox and Ben Stewart who wrote, Don’t Trust, Don’t Fear, Don’t Beg: The Extraordinary Story of the Arctic 30. I’m Amy Goodman with Aaron Maté.

AARON MATÉ: As we turn to some of the voices of the Arctic 30, these are excerpts of letters they wrote while imprisoned Murmansk. Greenpeace produced this video featuring a dramatic reading of their letters.

SPEAKER 1: Dear, James.

SPEAKER 2: Dear, supporters. It’s been over a month now that special forces dropped by helicopter and took over our ship at gunpoint. What a terrifying moment, I must admit. Surreal, out of an action movie. Since then, life has been quite difficult.

SPEAKER 3: We were towed into report under armed guard, Murmansk being the final destination.

SPEAKER 1: When we were taken off the ship to be arrested, it felt like a scene from the Cold War. It was dark. I was scared.

SPEAKER 4: The hardest moment was the first night in prison, being shown to my cell and introduced to a couple of strangers. It was frightening, to say the least. The cell is about eight meters long, four meters wide, and six meters high. I spend 23 hours a day in here without nothing but the occasional book and my thoughts.

SPEAKER 5: The weather is turned to winter.

SPEAKER 3: Everyone sleeps with their clothes on.

SPEAKER 1: I heard that from December, Murmansk is dark for six weeks. God, I hope I’m out by then.

AMY GOODMAN: Voices of the Arctic 30. Ben Stewart, do you think Greenpeace adequately prepared for the potential of this harsh Russian crackdown? And how did Greenpeace respond after it became clear that the activists were not going to be released.

BEN STEWART: OK, so two questions there. I think the first one — that’s a very fair question that Greenpeace has been asked a lot. Were they naive to go up there and not imagine that Putin’s judicial system would come down really hard? And I think the opinion is split, to be honest. I mean, some of the Arctic 30 think that Greenpeace really should have known, and should have predicted it. Others say, no, that’s not true, Greenpeace went up a year before and did a similar protest and didn’t get this kind of reaction.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, we had Kumi Naidoo on the phone here in the Democracy Now! studio broadcasting live as he was being pummeled with the Arctic water, that they were shooting at him from cannons hanging off the side of the ship and he is the head of Greenpeace.

BEN STEWART: And now was exactly a year before the events that we’re talking about here, and there wasn’t this Russian reaction. Then a year later, this huge Russian overreaction. So, I don’t think I’m qualified to say whether Greenpeace was naive or not. There’s split opinion on it. The second question, what was Greenpeace’s reaction? Well, we immediately went into crisis mode. Everybody in the organization was put on the job of getting these guys out of jail. We immediately realized that we were in some kind of geopolitical chess game with Putin. And, to be honest, we felt a bit out of our depth. We were advised by senior analysts who said don’t make Putin the focus of this. If you blame it all on Putin, then he’s going to feel cornered and his pride won’t let him release them. And he says that that is the mistake that the lawyers for Pussy Riot made. We had to give Putin quote, “a wide turning circle.” So we made Gazprom, his energy company, the focus of the campaign. In a sense, a proxy for Putin, and went after Gazprom and kicked them as hard as we could.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what Gazprom was doing.

BEN STEWART: Gazprom was up there, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, with this rig that we saw images there; the pre-Islamnia oil rig. They were trying to be the first company to pump oil from the icy waters of the Arctic, and therefore, spark a new Arctic oil rush. Greenpeace’s position was that we have to keep the oil in the ground, we can’t be looking for new sources of oil and exploiting them. So this, at that point was the most controversial oil rig in the world, and that’s why these guys planned to hang a one ton survival pod off of it and focus attention on that rig by having people live in the pod for days, maybe weeks. And then we saw these events that you saw in film, the massive overreaction, shots fired and these guys dragged off to prison for 15 years.

AMY GOODMAN: And the issue why the focus on the Arctic? This is 13 percent of the world’s untapped oil. Can you give us a layout of just what’s at stake here with the risk of drilling and how much energy we’re talking about?

BEN STEWART: Well, two things. I mean, there’s a supreme irony here that as the ice melts, oil companies, instead of seeing it as a profound warning to humanity, they’re saying, right, we have an opportunity to get our hands on the oil that used to be under the ice. So they’re going there to drill for the oil that caused the melting. When they burn it, it will cause more melting, so they can drill for more oil. This is a vicious circle and Greenpeace was up there to try to break that circle. As well as that, it would be impossible to clean up an Arctic oil spill. You saw what happened with the Deepwater Horizon. It took 6,500 boats to clean that up. You can’t get that kind of response up in the Arctic.

PETER WILLCOX: And they didn’t clean it up.

BEN STEWART: And they didn’t clean it up. And also, as the ice returns in the winter, it would stop them actually drilling a relief well, so that oil would pump, if there was a blowout up there, for month after month, collecting under the ice and then circulating around the pole. We got shells oil spill response plan through Freedom of Information, and it showed that one of the methods that they had planned for cleaning up an oil spill was to deploy a [indecipherable] with a gps collar that was supposedly going to sniff out the ice. They would then remove the icebergs and melt them on land and take the oil out. This is a fantasy. And that is why there is a big focus on Seattle at the moment where there are plans for Shell to send the Polar Pioneer rig up to the Alaskan Arctic. So really, America is the focus of this Arctic campaign now, and there’s some fantastic stuff happening in Seattle.

AMY GOODMAN: And G7, what just came out of it, your assessment as people hail this as groundbreaking around the issue of climate change?

BEN STEWART: Well, they say they’re going to phase out fossil fuels by 2100. Great, about 70 years too late. I think we’ll be toast by then.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Willcox, the issue of Seattle right now, the kayaks that are coming out, the politicians in them, activists, Greenpeace is also at the center of this, the protesting of Shell drilling in the Arctic.

PETER WILLCOX: Yeah, I think it’s becoming obvious to more and more people that if we burn even one quarter of the fossil fuels we have in hand now we’ll push global warming up as the two degrees Celsius mark, which some scientists say is just a recipe for disaster. We have already changed it 0.8 degrees. If we stop burning all fossil fuel tomorrow, it would still go up another 0.8 degrees. So we’re sniffing two degrees Celsius change and there are already people are dying from global warming. And when the waters come up — I mean, India has just built a massive electric fence between itself and Bangladesh because they don’t want the people from Bangladesh trying to get into India when the waters rise. I mean, it’s a huge problem. There is no excuse for oil companies to be looking to make more profit from something that we can never use. It’s a huge waste of energy.

AARON MATÉ: What’s striking about the Shell decision, the recent approval, is the Interior Department a few months ago says there is a 75 percent likelihood of a spill of 1000 barrels or more in the Arctic offshore region. So the government’s own assessment say 75 percent chance of spill, yet that is a reasonable risk, I suppose.

PETER WILLCOX: And part of shells plan for cleaning up a spill is the use of more dispersants, which were so destructive in the Gulf of Mexico and didn’t help matters. It just forced the oil to settle on the bottom, where it’s going to continue mixing into the environment.

AMY GOODMAN: Next month marks the 30th anniversary of a turning point in the history of Greenpeace. It was July 10, 1985, the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior was bombed by French Secret Service agents and sunk in a harbor in Auckland, New Zealand. The ship was preparing to head to sea to protest against French nuclear bomb tests in the South Pacific. Greenpeace photographer, Fernando Pereira, was killed in the attack. Our guest, Peter Willcox, was the captain of the ship, he was on board the boat when it was blown up. This is an excerpt from Bombing of the Rainbow Warrior, by Television New Zealand.

PRESENTER: The rainbow warrior is welcomed by a flotilla of small boats. It’s the time of French nuclear testing in the Pacific and some of these yachties plan to a accompany the Greenpeace mothership to Mururoa Atoll to protest. Greenpeace photographer Fernando Pereira had waved goodbye to his family in Amsterdam a month earlier.

MARELLE PEREIRA I remember me saying then, I don’t know why, but, daddy, don’t go, because if you leave, you’re not coming back. And, of course, he then telling to a child, no, dear, I am coming home.

STEVE SAWYER: I think the idea was to hit Greenpeace, to hit Greenpeace hard, hopefully, in their minds, hard enough so that we wouldn’t come back. And we wouldn’t recover from that.

PRESENTER: Steve Sawyer, Worldwide Director of Greenpeace. He lost a ship and a friend, Fernando.

STEVE SAWYER: They make a great show about how it was not designed to cause any loss of life, which is total rubbish. I mean, if — we’re very lucky that a lot more people weren’t killed.

AMY GOODMAN: You were there, Peter Willcox. You were actually on board? You were sleeping? It was the middle of the night?

PETER WILLCOX: Mm-hm. I was sleeping in my bunk.

AMY GOODMAN: As was Fernando?

PETER WILLCOX: Just to echo what Steve said, the bombs were so powerful, that it was just a miracle that we didn’t lose more people. If they had gone off half an hour sooner, we could have lost 10 more people.

AMY GOODMAN: But there weren’t — it wasn’t just one bomb, right?

PETER WILLCOX: No, it was two.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s how you got out.

PETER WILLCOX: Well, the first bomb put a six by seven foot hole in the engine room. The second bomb was placed on the propeller shaft. It went off maybe a minute after the first bomb. And I was standing right over it when it went off. And it was that bomb that trapped Fernando Pereira in his cabin and caused him to drown.

AMY GOODMAN: Because he had run back in to get his cameras.

PETER WILLCOX: He had gone in his cabin to get his cameras, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: So 30 years later, you are still at it, Captain Willcox. Is this really worth the risk?

PETER WILLCOX: Oh, the alternative for me is not leaving my children a place where they can safely bring up their own children. I think that is how critical it is. I have two daughters in their 20’s. I think they’re both really nervous about the future, and for very good reason. We know what climate change is doing. Look at the drought in California. We’re the richest country in the world. We can support, if you will, a drought. Countries like in East Africa and other places in the world, Bangladesh where it is going to displace millions of people, they can’t deal with it. And it’s coming. And it’s only coming because we’re not willing to change the way we produce energy — we make energy. We have the technology, we don’t have the will. And that’s just ridiculous.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have plans for another journey?

PETER WILLCOX: Sure, I’m going out in three weeks.

AMY GOODMAN: Where are you going?

PETER WILLCOX: New Zealand. Maybe Australia. There is a tuna campaign. Greenpeace’s biggest —

AMY GOODMAN: I just want to step back for a second. How is it proved that it was the French secret service agents did this?

PETER WILLCOX: Well, they were caught red-handed. They were caught 30 hours later returning a camper van to Auckland. Two — a man and woman pretending to be Swiss tourists. The police interrogated them all day. Took them to a hotel that night and said, look, we’re really sorry we arrested you, we’re going to take you to the airport tomorrow. Use the phone, call room service, don’t leave the room. They got on the phone, called up [DSGE] headquarters in Paris and said, hey, we did the job, but we’ll be delayed a day. And then within hours, they found out that their passports were fake from Switzerland. So, it was —- and they went back into it -—

AMY GOODMAN: So France claimed responsibility.

PETER WILLCOX: They admitted responsibility.

BEN STEWART: They paid compensation in the end, didn’t they?

PETER WILLCOX: They paid compensation to us and New Zealand. Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Don’t trust, don’t —

PETER WILLCOX: They’ve never apologized.


AMY GOODMAN: Well, 30th anniversary is a good time.

PETER WILLCOX: I’m not waiting for it.

AMY GOODMAN: Don’t Trust, Don’t Fear, Don’t Beg. We have 10 seconds. Why the title?

BEN STEWART: It’s “Ne ver’, ne boysya, ne proshu,” a Russian phrase that the prisoners were told when they arrived how to survive jail. So their fellow cellmates said, don’t trust, because — don’t trust the prison officers, that’s disrespecting yourself, don’t fear because that gets you nowhere, don’t beg because no one ever begged their way out of jail.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Don’t Trust, Don’t Fear, Don’t Beg: The Extraordinary Story of the Arctic 30, is by Ben Stewart, our guest, and thank you so much to Captain Peter Willcox. That does it for our broadcast.

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