Greenpeace: The Protest in Paradise

By Metta Spencer | 1985-11-01 12:00:00

They scramble up and down coconut trees, fish in outrigger canoes, raise pigs and yams, and go naked except for a sarong, a sharktooth necklace, and a flower tucked symbolically behind one ear. They are talented at playing ukuleles and making love. They are the South Sea Islanders we learned about from Paul Gauguin, Robert Louis Stevenson, Margaret Mead, Somerset Maugham and the old Dorothy Lamour films.

Well, it's image-updating time: There's trouble in paradise -- and, as we might have expected, the culprits are the whites. They are have brought three inter-dependent problems into the area: colonialism, ethnic strife, and militarism. In the small South Pacific islands alone, there are more than 200 military bases. That is also the region of the world where colonialism has been most persistent -- and not just because the Westerners want to keep control of the white sand beaches and moonlit lagoons. What they want to keep control of even more are the nuclear test sites that have turned the Pacific into an ecological danger zone. (Why experience the hazards of nuclear testing in your own country, when you can inflict it on a few thousand dark-skinned islanders in a remote part of the globe?) Colonialism, racism, and militarism: the Pacific natives are claiming now that these three evils can be eliminated only if addressed as a single unified system.

Colonialism and Militarism in the South Seas

Independence has come to some Pacific colonies, especially British ones, such as Papua New Guinea, Western Samoa, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu, which used to be the New Hebrides and which the British ruled jointly with the French. However, Britain still holds certain territories -- as also do Chile (Easter Island); Ecuador (the Galapagos); Indonesia (East Timor and West Papua); Australia(Norfolk and Torres Strait Islands); and of course the United States and France.

The Americans control the largest territory, Micronesia, under the terms of a trusteeship established by the United Nations Security Council in 1947. With this arrangement, the Americans accepted responsibility for the health and economic development of these territories and for assisting them to become independent.

The U.S. divided Micronesia into four administrative units: the Northern Marianas, the Marshall Islands, Belau, and the Federated States of Micronesia. When the trusteeship began to seem outdated, the United States attempted to gain the approval of the Micronesians to establish a permanent relationship along the lines of the Commonwealth status which it maintains with Puerto Rico. Only in the Northern Marianas has this been established.

The other three regions of Micronesia have been offered, therefore, a second type of relationship with the United States -- "Compacts of Free Association," which would grant political independence in domestic matters but leave foreign affairs under American purview and guarantee Americans the right to military bases and activities in the area. These compacts have been approved in the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands.

The deal involves a trade-off: The Marshall Islanders win a trust fund of about $150 million from the Americans as a settlement for all the outstanding court cases for old injuries from nuclear tests -- suits against the U.S. totalling $6 billion. Acceptance of this offer would forever absolve the United States of liability for the effects of its nuclear testing program. The health effects have been dreadful -- see the Rosalie Bertell interview in Peace Magazine, May 1985. They also guarantee the U.S. access to Kwajalein Atoll for thirty years longer as a target for ICBMs, which nowadays are MXs launched from Vandenburg base in California.

Not surprisingly, the Marshall Islanders from Bikini and Rongelap, who have borne the brunt of the nuclear radiation exposure, preferred to reject the compact; they have been, however, outvoted.

The 1200 people of Bikini left their atoll in 1946 so that it could be used for 23 U.S. bomb tests. They were sent back in the late 1960s, but were unable to remain there because the soil was still contaminated. The United States has pledged to restore the island to a habitable condition again, at a probable cost of $40 million. It is expected that the people will return home to Bikini within ten years.

Belau (also spelled Palau) is a republic of some 15,000 people who inhabit 200 islands in the western part of Micronesia. Its constitution specifies that its territory must be nuclear-free. Since this is not consistent with the terms of the compact proposed by the United States, that compact has been defeated. Five times the people of Belau have had to reaffirm in plebiscite elections their steadfast commitment to a constitution requiring their society to remain nuclear-weapon-free. The compact most recently negotiated omits any specific permission for the Americans to bring nuclear weapons into the territory. It is not clear, however, that the U.S. government has actually given up the attempt to get its way on this issue.

Hearings have gone ahead in the U.S. Congress toward terminating the American trusteeship in the other three zones of the Pacific, despite Belau's refusal to acquiesce. The American strategy is one of isolating Belau and inducing the other Pacific territories to pressure it so they can finally receive the money that will come to them. Even if Congressional confirmation comes as expected this fall, however, the compacts must be approved in the United Nations. It is possible that the Soviet Union will veto some of the new agreements at that time.

French colonialism and militarism in the Pacific has been even harder to oppose. Three territories are under French control French Polynesia, the islands of Wallis and Fatuna, and New Caledonia, where a fierce independence movement is growing.

New Caledonia comprises islands rich in nickel, with a population of 140,000. The native people, the Kanaks, now are a minority in their own country -- 43 percent of the population. The other inhabitants are 'Caldoches' of French origin, Asian immigrants, and French government employees who reside in the country only temporarily. Such an influx of foreigners threatens the Kanak culture.

The independence movement has sometimes involved violence, as Kanaks have been attacked by Caldoches, many of whom are the descendants of convicts and jailers who had been exiled to the island in 1853. They now dominate the economy, to the distress of the Kanak leaders. (Only 7000 of the 60,000 Kanaks have jobs; the rest live with their tribes in enclaves that amount to reservations.) The ethnic antagonism is intense, both because of economic disparities and because the Kanak claims for independence are jeopardized by rapid immigration that the French government is intentionally fostering for political purposes.

French President Mitterand has promised a referendum for New Caledonia, but the Kanak people demand that the only people eligible to vote be those residents who have at least one parent born in New Caledonia. This would assure the Caldoches a voice in the decision, and they would also be able to keep their French nationality after independence, if they so choose. However, later-comers would have no vote, and therefore could not block independence.

Meanwhile, the French are building up their military presence in New Caledonia, chiefly by creating a major naval base in Noumea, the pretty and affluent capital town. French nuclear submarines have already started coming there. This military build-up has been condemned by the foreign ministers of the other Melanesian countries, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu. A leader of the Kanak independence movement, Mr. Yciwcnc Yciwcnc, comments, "I think the fact that France will establish a nuclear base in New Caledonia will oblige the other countries of the Pacific to understand that the nuclear problem and the question of independence are part of the same struggle."

If the movement succeeds, the French administration will have to surrender power to a new state, the Republic of Kanaky.

French Polynesia is another story. It's an archipelago, of which the most famous island is Tahiti. Travelers say Tahiti is not what it used to be. There's poverty and prostitution now. The French government constructed military bases in Papeete, so thousands of Polynesians flocked there to take jobs. Soon there were slums, crime, alcoholism, and a variety of other social ills -- not to mention the invisible physical dangers, radiation. It is likely no mere coincidence that since 1966, health statistics on Polynesia have been withheld by the French government.

The French test their nuclear bombs in Polynesia, mainly in Mururoa, an atoll that used to be a coconut plantation. About l00 such bombs have been detonated there, including a neutron bomb that works on the principle of 'enhancing' radiation emissions, thus saving property while killing all living things. For the first several years after the French moved their testing from the Sahara desert to Polynesia in the 1960s, they continued to test bombs above ground in the atmosphere. Radioactive fish and fallout were detected thousands of miles away, even in Mexico.

Today the French bombs are tested underground; however, Mururoa atoll is fragile, with porous rocks that lack shock resistance. Tidal waves have been caused by the explosions, and radioactive wastes have been swept into the sea by hurricanes. Radioactive gases are vented from bore-holes during the underground tests. Researchers from New Zealand, who were permitted to examine parts of Mururoa for two days, concluded that there are abundant reasons for France to stop nuclear testing there. To this proposal, the French government and the vast majority of French citizens remain entirely unresponsive, even at a time when the Soviets have taken the initiative to halt testing of nuclear weapons and have challenged the other nuclear nations to follow suit.

The Rainbow Warrior

Difficult obstacles do not automatically produce defeatist attitudes. If they did, the people of the South Pacific would not be among the world's spunkiest opponents of nuclearism -- as they are. And they have been aided, of late, by the most audacious organization of the nuclear generation, Greenpeace. It was the sinking of the Greenpeace flagship, Rainbow Warrior, that may eventually turn the course of affairs in the South Pacific in a different direction.

The Rainbow Warrior had once been a Scottish research trawler but was acquired by Greenpeace in 1977 and painted with doves and a rainbow across its bow. It pursued Icelandic and Spanish whalers, British nuclear waste dumpers, and Canadian seal bashers. The Canadian government seized it once and the Peruvians another time, and once it escaped from a Spanish military port after being seized for halting Spanish whalers. Its engine had been dismantled to prevent escape, but the crew members reassembled it and fled. In 1983 it intervened in Soviet waters, investigating an illegal Siberian whaling operation and escaped under the hot pursuit of gunboats and helicopters.

Now it was in the South Pacific. It had just completed a project -- evacuating the inhabitants of Rongelap, a Marshall islands atoll which was still contaminated by American nuclear tests that had been conducted over thirty years ago. It would go next to Mururoa, leading a flotilla of protest ships into the forbidden waters to interfere if possible, or at least to witness a crime against the planet.

French government officials, not surprisingly, detest Greenpeace. There have been run-ins before. In 1972, a Greenpeace vessel had been rammed by a French warship in international waters. Its presence caused the delay of the nuclear tests by several weeks. The skipper, David McTaggart, was beaten and severely injured by French military officers.

But this time it was to be worse. On July 10, at a dock in Auckland, New Zealand, two explosions tore through the Rainbow Warrior, and within four minutes it sank. One crew member, Fernando Pereira of Spain, was killed.

Le Vrai Scandale

There is no disarmament movement worth mentioning in France. When President de Gaulle removed his country's military forces from the command of NATO and created its own "Force de Frappe" this made a significant difference between France and the European countries that operated under American military planning. Whether right or left, the great majority of French citizens want their government to own and continue developing nuclear weapons. They support President Mitterand's threats to use violence, if necessary, to prevent the entry of ships into the forbidden area around Mururoa at the time of the next bomb test.

So the scandal that enveloped the French government in August was not exactly over principles but mainly over methods. The sinking of the Rainbow Warrior was scandalous because it had been carried out so clumsily. If the government was responsible, someone in a high position would have to resign. Within days after the ship sank many of the details were reported in the press, and the evidence was damning. Trained French frogmen commandos had been hanging around conspicuously before the sinking with forged passports, special French diving gear (that do not release tell-tale bubbles), making long distance phone calls that could be traced.

Prime Minister David Lange of New Zealand announced flatly that he knew who did the job; if so, it would be possible for his government to bring the case to the International Court of Justice at The Hague. He later softened his stand, but nevertheless, comparisons were made to Watergate.

The French government responded quickly to calls for an inquiry; a Gaullist of high repute, Bernard Tricot, was appointed to carry it out. Still, when his report was announced, it was widely ridiculed as a whitewash. David McTaggart, Greenpeace's Canadian rounder, called it an insult to the intelligence, and announced plans to take the French government to the European Court of Human Rights at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. Greenpeace will be represented by Lloyd Cutler, a legal advisor to former President Jimmy Carter; Mr. Cutler's willingness to serve without fee indicates that the proceedings will be very serious indeed.

Still, even with an apparent 'smoking gun' as evidence, debates were raging in September in the French press about who organized the action. The General Directorate of External Security (DGSE) is deeply implicated.

This organization, the French Secret Police, is popularly called 'the swimming pool' by Parisians. Its agents are members of the military, which raises questions about whether the action had been planned or approved by high government officials, as some newspapers alleged. Other papers, on the other hand, asserted that the frogman operation had been bungled deliberately -- a strategy by right-wingers who planned it precisely to embarrass the Mitterand government. Hardly so: Within a month that government could no longer deny its responsibility for the sinking.

A Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific

We have not heard the last of this issue. Bombs will go on exploding in Mururoa while politicians all around the world keep on striking poses. But the effort to rid the Pacific of nuclear weapons will continue, even while these dramas arc played out.

Every year the leaders of the Pacific nations meet for a 'forum'. A year ago, the Australians proposed a treaty naming the South Pacific as a nuclear weapon free zone. The proposal was accepted and a working group was formed to formulate the treaty. This August, it was put forward and generally approved. So far, six countries have approved it; a total of eight must do so for it to come into effect.

This treaty does not represent a change of course for the nations supporting it. As early as 1962 the Australian Labour Party had called for a nuclear free Pacific. Twelve years later, the New Zealand government introduced a resolution to that effect in the Uni ed Nations; it passed, though all nuclear powers except China abstained and both the United States and the Soviet Union expressed disapproval. Of course, it was not brought into effect. Australia has continued to advance a NWFZ proposal, but quite a wishy-washy one: It would allow nuclear weapons to be transported through the Pacific and it would not interfere with the ANZUS alliance. It was this kind of nuclear free zone that was endorsed this summer by the governments of the region.

Of course, it would amount to nothing except a scrap of paper unless the nuclear powers sign the two conventions to it. It is not clear whether they will do so, but a U.S. government spokesman has indicated that his country may be prepared to accept the proposal. This response reflects the fact that the document restricts nuclear nations hardly at all. For that reason, Vanuatu, the most vigorous anti-nuclear country in the area, has declined to support the proposal, preferring to hold out for a stronger, authentic nuclear weapon free Pacific. The struggle is not over yet.

There's a message in it. When people see the connection, as many South Pacific people do, between the oppression they experience as colonial subjects and as victims of militarism, their opposition becomes more intense. The call for peace must be linked to the call for justice and for the preservation of the environment.

Peace Magazine November 1985

Peace Magazine November 1985, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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