Western terrorists' destruction and murder

May 10, 2006

Eyes of Fire: The Last Voyage of the Rainbow Warrior
By David Robie
Asia Pacific Network, 2005
180 pages, NZ$39.95 (pb)


Just before midnight on July 10, 1985, the Direction Generale de la Securitie Exterieure (DGSE) emerged briefly and ingloriously from its hidey-hole as the French equivalent of the CIA, when two of its espionage agents, with strategically-placed limpet mines, sent the Greenpeace ship the Rainbow Warrior and crew member Fernando Pereira to a watery grave in Auckland Harbour in New Zealand.

The twentieth anniversary edition of the book by journalist David Robie, who spent ten weeks on the Rainbow Warrior during its last voyage, revisits the shameful story of state terrorism in the service of nuclear violence and colonialism in the Pacific.

The Rainbow Warrior joined the Greenpeace fleet in 1977, converted from a rusted old trawler into the flagship of the non-violent, direct action environmental group. Actions against whaling, sealing and the dumping of radioactive waste at sea gave the Rainbow Warrior its battle stripes (and literal battle scars at the hands of French commandos) before what would turn out to be its final campaign.

In 1954, the US had conducted a massive thermonuclear bomb test (codenamed Bravo) on Bikini Atoll in the Pacific. One-hundred-and-fifty kilometres downwind, Rongelap Atoll in the US-administered Marshall Islands took the radioactive fallout. This outcome was not an accident because the wind direction was known to the bomb test planners, the US Nuclear Defense Agency. The resulting thyroid tumours, cancers, leukaemias, birth defects, still-births, miscarriages and "jellyfish babies, shapeless short bodies with no face who live for a day or so and then die", were part of an experiment to test the effects of living in a radiation-contaminated landscape.

In 1985, the 320 Rongelapese asked Greenpeace to help them relocate to Mejato Island, 160 km away, after Washington had rejected any financial or logistical help with the move from their poisoned home. The Rainbow Warrior completed the job, as part of its campaign for a nuclear-free and independent Pacific.

Mororua Atoll, honeycombed by four-dozen French nuclear tests, was to be the last destination of the Rainbow Warrior but before the ship left Auckland harbour, the DGSE agents struck. The subsequent police investigation led to the arrest of Major Alain Mafart and Captain Dominique Prieur, two of the six DGSE agents in New Zealand assigned to infiltrate Greenpeace and stop the Rainbow Warrior from reaching Mororua.

Any hopes held by anti-nuclear campaigners that France would abandon its nuclear arms and testing program after the election of the Socialist Party in 1981, had been quickly disabused by the government of Francois Mitterand, which continued to add to the more than 100 French nuclear tests in the Pacific. The DGSE agents had been despatched on orders from Mitterand's defence minister, Charles Hernu, using beat-up "intelligence" about an "armada" (a small flotilla of yachts and one old trawler) "invading" Mororua and carrying scientific equipment (a $200 radiation detector) to allegedly spy on the planned bomb test.

When the sabotage operation was exposed, Paris moved into cover-up mode. DGSE-friendly journalists put out false information that the bombing was the work of Britain's MI6 or that Greenpeace had been taken over by the KGB. When mounting evidence implicated the DGSE as the culprit, Paris reacted with the usual reflexes of politicians caught out in lying and criminal behaviour. The Mitterand government found refuge in patriotism, waving the tricolour — irradiating the Pacific was necessary for French "national security" and its policy core of "nuclear deterrence". A government-appointed enquiry dutifully whitewashed the government, limiting the chain of responsibility to only those most exposed (the defence minister and the head of the DGSE who were sacked) whilst the other terrorist masterminds in the government were not even charged.

New Zealand law played its disgraceful part by allowing Mafart and Prieur to plead guilty to the lesser charges of manslaughter and wilful damage and to get away with just ten years. When France eventually compensated the New Zealand government (for NZD$13 million), part of the sordid deal involved transferring the two violent terrorists to comfortable "Club Med" detention in French Polynesia after serving less than a year in prison, before Paris finally repatriated them to their homeland as "honoured, decorated and promoted" heroes soon after. "A supreme irony that such an act of state terror should be rewarded in this age of a so-called "war on terrorism", comments an unimpressed Robie.

Greenpeace received $8 million compensation from France and the Rongelapese $60 million from the US to clean-up their island home (they are now debating whether it is safe to return). Despite the loss of the Rainbow Warrior, Greenpeace made it to Mororua, adding to the pressure on France to abandon nuclear testing in the South Pacific, which was finally achieved in 1996, after 193 French nuclear bombs had added to the British, Chinese and US testing in the region, causing, according to a UN report, 150,000 islanders to die or face premature death from radiation poisoning.

Greenpeace played a prominent, high profile role in ending the Pacific's nuclear nightmare but its importance can be overrated. Robie says that Greenpeace "forced the halt" of nuclear testing in the Pacific but makes only passing reference to the mass anti-nuclear movement of the time, the wave that bore Greenpeace aloft. Neither is Robie's book one to pause for critical evaluation of the politics of Greenpeace, which, as he acknowledges, is a multi-million dollar corporation with a large, but passive, member base supporting a select cast of action heroes.

What the book does do, despite some documentary minutiae that with the passage of time now clutter rather than elucidate the narrative, is to exhibit an act (the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior) and a history (nuclear imperialism in the Pacific) of destruction and murder by Western state terrorists. Eyes of Fire thus offers an historical counter to today's "war on terror" ideologues and, in its tragic yet uplifting tale of perseverance and victory over nuclear testing in the Pacific, offers hope for defeating other political evils of our time.

From Green Left Weekly, May 10, 2006.
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