Greenpeace has always taken risks in pursuit of publicity. Those risks are intrinsic to its success in raising green awareness over four decades. Yet in neither the present case of the protesters arrested in the Arctic, nor in the other event that seized the world’s attention, the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand in 1985, could it be said that the organisation had been reckless.
The Greenpeace ship, Arctic Sunrise, was in international waters at all times. The gas platform, which the protesters tried to board to put up banners, is also in international waters. It is in what Russia calls its Exclusive Economic Zone, but this gives Russia the right to exploit natural resources there, not to board boats engaged in peaceful protest and to arrest their crews.
Thus the global publicity for Greenpeace’s campaign against drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic has been secured not by the protesters’ provocation but by the overreaction of the Russian authorities. Just as French nuclear testing in the Pacific was more or less ended by the overreaction of the French government 28 years ago. Indeed, the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior was the more extraordinary event, not just because Fernando Pereira, the photographer, was killed in the attack, but because it was carried out by the intelligence service of a Western democracy – France – on the orders of President François Mitterrand.
Russia, for all its membership of the Council of Europe and its formal adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights, is a newer democracy, and we should be grateful that none of the expedition suffered any worse – so far – than two months in jail.
Kieron Bryan, the video journalist who travelled on the Arctic Sunrise but who is not a Greenpeace member, appeared to criticise the group yesterday. The arrests might have been “avoidable”, he said. “I’m not naive enough to think that it wasn’t beneficial for Greenpeace that we were all kept in detention for two months.”
The Independent on Sunday does not accept his implication. Mr Bryan himself also said: “I ignored a lot of the risks which were in plain sight and in hindsight I should have been able to spot them.” The Russian miscalculation was undoubtedly a publicity bonus, but it was not engineered by Greenpeace.
As it is, the expedition has made not one but two important gains. First, it has made the world aware of the dangers of drilling in the Arctic. It has drawn attention to the problems of controlling oil spills under ice, and to Russia’s poor record in particular, responsible on some calculations for half of all oil spilled in the world. It has advertised Greenpeace’s plan for a global sanctuary in the High Arctic, and increased the flow of donations to Greenpeace.
Second, the affair has been awkward for Vladimir Putin. He wants the Winter Olympics in February 2014 to be a success and not an excuse for what he no doubt regards as pious Westerners to go on about freedom of expression. The Russian government was presumably finding the fuss over the Arctic 30 embarrassing and has been looking for ways to bring the whole thing to a quiet conclusion.
If so, we hope that useful lessons about respect for the rule of law and the rights of legitimate protest have been learned in Moscow, as well as for the protection of the Arctic wilderness.