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Greenpeace's anti-Putin pirates

Clip: Greenpeace's anti-Putin pirates

This piece was originally published in Sir Magazine in November 2013.

THEY DON’T SEEM LIKE PIRATES. Most pirate crews, after all, don’t have statements from their organisers sympathetically reprinted in newspapers across the Western world. Nor, when ordinary pirates are arrested, do they provoke world leaders to express concern, as Angela Merkel did in a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But Greenpeace activists, of course, are not most pirate crews.

It’s not at all clear, in fact, that they are pirates at all. After activists on Greenpeace’s ship, the Arctic Sunrise, tried to board Russia’s Prirazlomnaya oil rig in September, their ship was seized and all thirty were arrested. On September 24th they were charged and ordered to jail for two months whilst the Investigative Committee, Russia’s answer to the FBI, investigates them under the country’s piracy law. What happens next is unclear – even, apparently, to President Putin, who said just a day after the charges were laid that “it is quite clear that they are not pirates.”

Whether the activists are guilty under Russian law is very difficult to say: Russia’s justice system is notoriously opaque. Alexei Simonov, head of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, a rights group, told the Los Angeles Times that it “is designed by the Kremlin not to look for real culprits to be punished but to punish and scare those who don’t suit the authorities.” But piracy is also defined in international law, and here it seems that the case against Greenpeace is slim. For one thing, the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Law of the Sea defines piracy as being directed against a ship – which Prirazlomnaya is not – but even putting that technicality to one side, the activists’ attempt to board Russia’s oil rig likely does not meet the criteria.

There was a long tradition in maritime law which held that piracy was, in its essence, robbery at sea – so that actions undertaken not for personal gain, like those of Greenpeace’s anti-oil-drilling protestors, could not qualify. In that respect, at least, Russia gained an unlikely source of support from a decision of the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit earlier this year. The Court held that, although a party must be pursuing “private ends” before its actions could count as piracy, a private end was simply any goal of a private person or organisation, as opposed to a state or nation. Greenpeace’s political goals, then, do not exonerate it.

The ruling in that case went against Paul Watson and his own environmental organisation, and in favour of Japan’s Institute for Cetacean Research. Watson’s group, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, was founded in 1977 as a splinter from Greenpeace, which Watson believed was not aggressive enough in pursuing its environmental goals. Since then, Sea Shepherd has actively campaigned to stop fishing and whaling programmes which it views as unsustainable, immoral and illegal. Watson boasts of having scuttled ten whaling ships in the decades since founding the group. It is those tactics that led to the 9th Circuit Court’s unanimous ruling against it and prompted Chief Judge Alex Kozinski to write:

“You don’t need a peg leg or an eye patch. When you ram ships; hurl glass containers of acid; drag metal-reinforced ropes in the water to damage propellers and rudders; launch smoke bombs and flares with hooks; and point high-powered lasers at other ships, you are, without a doubt, a pirate, no matter how high-minded you believe your purpose to be.”

Perhaps strangely, for such an overtly aggressive organisation, Kozinski’s ruling was a rare instance of Sea Shepherd losing a court battle. Raffi Khatchadourian wrote in 2007 about Watson’s techniques for avoiding legal trouble: confidently publicising Sea Shepherd’s actions to give the appearance of total legality, and exploiting their political advantage – whaling is not, it is safe to say, popular in most countries – to make authorities reluctant to charge them.

In fact, for much of its existence Sea Shepherd has gone even further than claiming that its actions are legal. In 1979, Watson used his first ship – the Sea Shepherd – to ram and scuttle the Sierra, a pirate whaling ship off the coast of Portugal, claiming nothing more than that his actions were morally right, whatever their legal status. In the 1990s, however, Sea Shepherd started making the claim, which it maintains today, that it is in fact enforcing international law. Watson says his organisation is empowered to do this by the terms of the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) 1982 moratorium on commercial whaling and, in particular, by the UN World Charter for Nature. Legal experts are unconvinced. Even an article by Joseph Elliott Roeschke, posted by Sea Shepherd on their website in supposed vindication of their arguments, says – complete with nautical pun – that, “sailing forward they should refrain from intentionally ramming future ships in the name of international conservation law.” A less sympathetic expert, David Caron from the University of California at Berkeley, told theNew Yorker that Watson’s argument is “[c]learly wrong. There is no ambiguity.” International law, though, is always difficult to pin down: the fact that only Sea Shepherd has been willing to enforce certain parts of international conservation law is certainly indicative of that. So the American court ruling, which forced Sea Shepherd US to withdraw from the campaign against Japanese whalers and Watson (officially, at least) to stand down from the organisation, is an unusual blow.

Sea Shepherd, clearly, is in a different league than Greenpeace when it comes to violence. This is hardly surprising: Watson, who claims he was one of the group’s founders – Greenpeace disputes this, saying he was only an influential early member – established Sea Shepherd after being expelled for violent behaviour. But it means that any support Russia might hope to win for its prosecution in the Arctic Sunrise case by analogy to Judge Kozinski’s ruling must be limited. The activists climbing onto the Prirazlomnaya were trying to stick posters on the rig, as part of an anti-oil campaign which has previously seen Greenpeace paint slogans on ships; their behaviour hardly seems to qualify as sufficiently violent to sustain a piracy charge, at least under international standards. Russian justice, of course, can sometimes be a law unto itself.

Whether or not they are legal, are the actions of Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd moral or legitimate? There is a storied history, after all, of breaking the law to pursue noble ends. One important difference is that, unlike paradigms of civil disobedience such as Rosa Parks or Gandhi, these environmental groups are not disobeying laws or authorities which they think ought not to exist. Whatever else their views, the activists who tried to scale the side of Russia’s oil rig, or those who ram and throw acid onto Japanese ships, probably do not think that there should be no law against that kind of activity. So they don’t seem to be engaging in what political philosopher Ronald Dworkin called integrity-based civil disobedience, in which people disobey laws that they feel are simply immoral. But there are other kinds of disobedience; when Malcolm X declared that “It’ll be ballots, or it’ll be bullets”, he was calling for civil rights, not for the legalisation of violent conflict. Still, violence in the African-American civil rights movement was controversial, and remains so; it’s not so unambiguous a precedent as to put Sea Shepherd in the clear.

Arguably overshadowing those considerations, though, is the question of effectiveness. It is obviously wrong to break the law, trespass and use violence if you achieve nothing beneficial by it. And the effects of these aggressive environmental campaigns are at least unclear. Greenpeace, for its part, does not aspire to any immediate impacts. Its ‘Save the Arctic’ campaign, of which the attempt to board the Prirazlomnaya rig was part, is centred on a petition and has never attempted to directly prevent oil drilling from occurring. Sea Shepherd, once again, is playing a different game. In 2007, Watson told the New Zealand Herald, “I will not watch a whale die. I’ve not seen a whale die since I left Greenpeace, in 1977. When we show up, whales don’t die.” And he, along with the fleet he dubs “Neptune’s Navy”, have often been successful in their strategy of disruption. In 2012, the Institute of Cetacean Research suffered a loss of US$20.5 million, and had to seek extra support from the Japanese government, thanks to Sea Shepherd’s actions; earlier this year, the Institute returned to Japan with its lowest ever haul after spending 21 days of its 48 day expedition evading Sea Shepherd ships.

The group also operates, though, through the same kinds of publicity channels as Greenpeace. Watson and his fellow activists have been brought to prominence in America by a popular documentary, ‘Whale Wars’, filmed aboard their ships. And they are adept at taking advantage of public relations opportunities. When WikiLeaks released cables revealing that the Japanese government had asked the US to review Sea Shepherd’s tax status, the group seized the chance – both to self-aggrandise, by showing how they had rattled the Japanese, and to protect themselves, warning the US government off bowing to foreign pressure. But if their goal is to win sympathy for the anti-whaling cause, then they have had mixed success at best. In 2007, Raffi Khatchadourian suggested that Sea Shepherd’s sinking of two whaling ships in the harbour of Reykjavik in 1986 played a part in undercutting popular support for anti-whalers in Iceland, which is today one of only three countries to openly continue hunting whales. And he quoted Sidney Holt, a key figure in fisheries science who has worked with the IWC, saying that Watson’s “involvement in all this is an absolute disaster. Almost everything he has been doing has had blowback”.

It is too early to say whether Greenpeace’s quasi-assault on Russia’s oil rig will have a similar impact. But it seems obvious that neither it nor Sea Shepherd, whatever their successes to date, will be able to directly prevent a sovereign state from carrying through on whaling or oil-drilling if it is determined to do so. ‘Neptune’s Navy’ has had some success, but whalers have started to fight back, blasting activists with water and using Long Range Acoustic Devices which can cause nausea and panic, with the authorisation of the country’s Fisheries Department. Watson will not be able to outmuscle the Japanese government.

And if changing public opinion is the mechanism by which environmentalists hope to achieve their goals, it is not clear that this kind of violent direct action is necessary or helpful to the cause. Greenpeace’s petitions and PR campaigns are increasingly effective at swaying opinion against oil drilling, without needing to scale oil rigs and stick up posters which nobody will see; the activists aboard the Arctic Sunrise seem ultimately to be a sympathetic but ineffectual group of semi-radicals. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has been more effective in recent years. But at the same time, an Australian court has found Japan’s whaling program in breach of its law and the Australian government has brought its anti-whaling case before the International Court of Justice. International opinion is set against whaling more firmly than ever; even in Japan, younger generations are less likely to be in favour of whaling and – most significantly – much less likely to eat whale meat. Paul Watson is an ultra, possessed by dogged determination to continue violently fighting for a cause which doesn’t need him, and might well be better off without him. Pirates or not, activists who use violence at sea are not quite as useful – or as noble – as they seem to think.