When do protests go overboard?

Sea Shepherd’s tenacity in its pursuit of whaling ships has split eco-campaigners. But as Phil Boucher reports, the tactics are paying off

Monday 07 March 2011 01:00

As the US intelligence analyst Bradley Manning endures his ninth month of solitary confinement at the Quantico Marine Base in Virginia, it’s highly unlikely that he’s too concerned with the actions of a rogue anti-whaling organisation that’s been labelled as everything from pirates to terrorists.

Yet the confidential diplomatic cables he’s accused of passing onto Wikileaks have shown the abrasive methods employed by the much-criticised Sea Shepherd Conservation Society have exerted far more pressure on the Japanese government than anyone thought possible.

Since its creation in 1977, Sea Shepherd has gone for the jugular of the Japanese whaling fleet by physically preventing them from hunting and hitting where it hurts most: the wallet.

In recent weeks this has been spectacularly successful, with the Japanese suspending all of its whaling operations on 18 February after Sea Shepherd vessels blocked the stern of the Nisshin Maru factory ship, preventing any harpooned whales from being loaded on.

Japan’s foreign minister Seiji Maehara claimed the “harassment” by Sea Shepherd had made it impossible to continue because it was “difficult to ensure the safety of the crew”.

Yet these aggressive methods are nothing new: Sea Shepherd’s Antarctic missions have been characterised by high-speed chases, rammings, boardings, the frequent use of water cannon and, in January 2010, the sinking of the futuristic trimaran the Ady Gil, after it was struck by harpoon ship the Shonan Maru 2.

In February 2010, Japanese fisheries minister Hirotaka Akamatsu also accused the group of throwing butyric acid – made from rancid butter – onto the decks of the whaling ships, mildly injuring three crew members. A claim Sea Shepherd totally dismissed as “rotten butter bomb attacks”, which were “unpleasant but harmless”.Despite this, the organisation’s aggressive approach to the whaling fleet has provoked widespread criticism from other environmental campaign groups, with Greenpeace labelling Sea Shepherd’s tactics as “morally wrong” and “a tactical error”.

A statement on the Greenpeace website adds: “By making it easy to paint anti-whaling forces as dangerous, piratical terrorists, Sea Shepherd could undermine the forces within Japan which could actually bring whaling to an end.”

So is it a case that Sea Shepherd has won the battle, but will ultimately fail to win the hearts and minds of the Japanese and, therefore, the war?A largely overlooked US government transcript posted on the Wikileaks website suggests otherwise.

It reads: “It would be easier for Japan to make progress in the IWC (International Whaling Commission) negotiations if the US were to take action against the Sea Shepherd.”

The exposed material adds that Japan’s vice-minister for international affairs at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Shuji Yamada, asked Monica Medina, the US Commissioner to the IWC, to look into Sea Shepherd’s tax exempt status in return for a deal that would see Japan reduce its “scientific” whale catch in Antarctica.

“Yamada inquired about an investigation into the tax status of the US-based NGO Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and repeated Japan’s request for the US to take action against the organisation,” adds another entry.

In a later document, it emerges that Medina considered this proposal, stating that the US government could “demonstrate the group does not deserve tax exempt status based on their aggressive and harmful actions.”

The leaked files were exchanged ahead of a crucial IWC meeting held in June 2010. If the talks had run favourably for Japan, it would have enabled whalers to focus on Japanese waters rather than the Antarctic.

Unfortunately for them, the negotiations were scuppered by the European Union, Australia and a string of South American countries, who rejected all of the proposals. But what these cables show conclusively is, regardless of the moral ambiguities surrounding their tactics, Sea Shepherd’s abrasive approach towards the whalers is working behind closed doors. Otherwise, the Japanese would not have asked the Americans to cut off their financial bloodline.

“Our objective in opposing the whaling fleet is to sink them economically – to bankrupt them,” says Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson.

“Every year they are coming down weaker. So they are becoming increasingly frustrated and angry. A lot of the bureaucrats have taken it quite personally, I think.”Watson insists that Sea Shepherd hasn’t heard from the US tax office since the cables were swapped in November 2009. He also maintains it has passed two audits in the last 10 years, so the US government has no cause to audit again.

Yet the question remains: are Sea Shepherd’s methods justified? After all, while nobody has been killed through its actions, it does push the limits of what is acceptable and legal to the extreme.

At the same time Greenpeace and an array of other environmental protest groups have been involved in countless examples of direct action over the years without resorting to anything more dangerous than the occupation of a building or the careful shutting down of an electricity plant. So just where do you draw the line?“What’s acceptable, proportionate and reasonable is highly subjective,” explains Greenpeace spokesperson Ben Stewart.

“Greenpeace adheres to a policy of non-violence. So there is a very obvious line that is never crossed when it comes to the prospect of committing violence against people or even buildings.

“I’ve lopped off a few padlocks in my time and that doesn’t greatly trouble my conscience. But my conscience would be greatly troubled if I, or anyone I was acting with, was violent towards another person.”

Neil Kingsnorth, head of activism at Friends of the Earth, agrees: “If something is non-violent and illegal, then in theory, it is a perfectly legitimate form of protest.

“It all depends on what the action is. In theory you can behave outside the law to challenge a greater injustice, but even then the key principle is that it is a non-violent approach.”

This is also a philosophy that has been adopted by burgeoning grassroots environmental campaigns such as Plane Stupid and Climate Camp, whose approaches mix non-violence with carefully-conceived incidences of civil disobedience.

Barney Francis, a Plane Stupid activist who last week received a two-year conditional discharge for entering Manchester Airport to help form a human chain around the nose of a Monarch Airlines plane, explains: “If you consider yourself a responsible citizen, then civil disobedience is sometimes your duty.“But it has got to be appropriate and carefully thought out.

“Being considerate of others, we wore high-visibility jackets, made ourselves known to airport workers by waving to them as we passed and, as soon as a patrol came over, we immediately stated that it was a non-violent protest and we were not terrorists.”

In Plane Stupid’s case, the direct action was a last resort, as the group had already exhausted all other democratic channels in its desire to protect some Grade 2 listed cottages and a patch of mature woodland from being destroyed in the expansion of Manchester Airport’s freight terminal. But by being confrontational and poking around the edges of appropriate action, it successfully drew public attention to its cause and escaped a serious reprimand from authorities.

“If you consider the implications of your actions and make an informed decision then the ends do justify the means,” adds Francis.Crucially, it has to be understood that Sea Shepherd comes from an entirely different perspective to this, with Watson labelling it as an “anti-poaching organisation” who’s “only responsibility is to its clients – the whales”. Sea Shepherd is also happy to operate tight against the boundary that separates the legal from the illegal, giving it a degree of unorthodox unpredictability that the Japanese government simply cannot deal with.

In many ways it is this, rather than its propensity for aggressive non-violence, that is Sea Shepherd’s trump card, as it means it is always one step ahead of the slow-moving Japanese bureaucracy, particularly as they are simultaneously having to deal with the other forms of anti-whaling protest.

“Sea Shepherd in not going out there to beat up or hurt the Japanese whalers; it is guided by a compassion for the natural environment and for the whales,” explains Climate Camp activist Dan Glass.

“But because it has love for biodiversity across all species, it has become more militant towards those who are destroying what it loves.

“In any form of protest you need to use a variety of different methods: where you had the suffragists, you had suffragettes; where you had Martin Luther King, you had Malcolm X; and where you have Friends of the Earth you have Sea Shepherd.”

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