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The Arctic 30 were Acting in the Best Tradition of Civil Disobedience

Greenpeace activists were calling attention to the risk of extreme oil drilling

Throughout history, non-violent civil disobedience has changed laws and governments, altered opinions and societal norms, and ultimately moved mountains that many said would never budge.

In the 42 years since a small group of committed activists set off from Vancouver, Canada to stop US underground nuclear testing in Amchitka, Alaska, Greenpeace has practiced non-violent civil disobedience, in the tradition of Henry Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, to expose and prevent environmental crimes in every corner of the globe.

photo of a man holding another captive at knifepoint aboard a boatphoto © Denis Sinyakov / GreenpeaceA Russian Coast guard officer is seen pointing a knife at a Greenpeace International activist as five
activists attempt to climb the 'Prirazlomnaya,' an oil platform operated by Russian state-owned
energy giant Gazprom platform in Russia’s Pechora Sea.

Often we are met with official displeasure and anger, sometimes even violence. Occasionally our campaigning is so effective – such a threat to corporations and governments – that we are met with extreme measures.

In 1985, as the Rainbow Warrior sat moored in Auckland Harbor, readying for the next stage in our protest against the French government’s ongoing nuclear testing in the Pacific, two French Secret Service spies, acting on orders from the very top echelons of the French government, attached a bomb to the hull of the yacht. It exploded, sinking the ship and killing 35-year-old photographer Fernando Pereira.

That was certainly the darkest moment in Greenpeace’s relatively young history, and a shocking act during peacetime. It was a violent attack, designed to kill, and perpetrated against peaceful protesters on the soil of an allied country.

It’s clear the current crisis in Russia was provoked by the same threat of successful opposition to environmental harm, the same repressive urge to shut down a protest so frightening to one of the largest companies in the world that the full force of the Russian state has come crashing down on 30 brave souls peacefully working to save the Arctic.

Here’s the full story of what happened to the Greenpeace activists now in Russian jail cells:

In the early hours of September 19, Greenpeace activists in small inflatable boats headed towards the massive Arctic oil platform, the Prirazlomnaya, in the Russian Arctic.

photo of military pointing guns at activists, their hands raisedphoto © GreenpeaceThe activists were there to peacefully protest against Arctic oil drilling.

The majority Russian state-owned firm, Gazprom, owns the Prirazlomnaya, and has proudly proclaimed its intentions to make it the first functioning oil rig in the Arctic – despite repeated delays and recurring issues with the platform.

Five Greenpeace activists approached the rig to hang a banner highlighting the lunacy of exploiting rapidly melting sea ice to get at ever more fossil fuels, and the inherent danger of a spill in a fragile area that many people – from top scientists to the US Coast Guard – say would be impossible to clean up.

The activists never got that far. Balaclava-wearing members of the Russian Federal Security Services, wielding pistols, knives and machine guns, encircled the unarmed activists and the freelance journalists accompanying them, while platform workers aimed high-pressure water hoses on the two that had managed to scale the side.

The two climbers, Sini Saarela and Marco Weber, were taken by masked men who fired live rounds into the water. An artillery cannon to fire 11 warning shots across the bow of the Arctic Sunrise.

The following day, 15 heavily armed Russian troops rappelled from a helicopter onto the deck of the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise, which was situated in international waters. After a distress signal was sent from the bridge, the world watched as fearful tweets came from three crew members barricaded in the radio room, communicating the violent seizure of the ship via @gp_sunrise. In the last minutes of the siege, they wrote: "Latest from the deck: Crew are sitting on their knees on the helipad with guns pointed at them. #Savethearctic." Then, a moment later: "This is pretty terrifying. Loud banging. Screaming in Russian. They're still trying to kick in the door."

The Russians did eventually break the door down, smashing the communication equipment to pieces once inside.

photo of small boats near a larger vessel, ropes and people attached to the sidephoto © Denis Sinyakov / GreenpeaceA Russian coast guard officer is seen pointing a gun at a Greenpeace International activist.

The Russian soldiers detained all 30 of the crew and journalists at gunpoint. They were forced to tow the ship to the port city of Murmansk after Captain Peter Willcox – a Connecticut native, long time Greenpeacer and Captain of the Rainbow Warrior that dark night in Auckland so many years ago – refused Russian demands to sail following the illegal boarding. More than 100 hours later, during which time the ship and those on board were incommunicado, the ship arrived in the port city of Murmansk.

Despite President Putin’s public comments that the Greenpeace activists and freelance journalists were “obviously not pirates,” less than a week later all 30 were charged with piracy, a crime that carries a 15-year jail sentence in Russia.

Since then, tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest the ludicrous charges and affirming the right to peaceful protest. People around the world are echoing the sentiments of the Arctic 30 that the time for complacency is long past in the face of fossil fuel industry recklessness and the failure of the global leaders in their thrall to take serious action on climate change.

A vast array of public figures agree that the charges are overblown and inappropriate. Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has expressed her concern and urged a greater international outcry about the case. The Dutch government has taken international legal action and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has asked her top diplomat to make representations to the Russian government. Even the Kremlin’s top human rights adviser called the charges “laughable.” A vast array of international legal experts have uniformly described the charges as baseless.

Journalists around the world have mobilized to call for the release of the two independent freelance journalists onboard the Arctic Sunrise, Kieron Bryan and Denis Sinyakov. From petitions signed by thousands of journalists and the editors of every national newspaper in the United Kingdom, to brave protests by Russian journalists and media, global pressure is increasing to recognize the extraordinary breaches of human rights involved in the case.

Why were the Arctic 30 in the Russian Arctic, anyway? And why were they protesting at this platform for the second time in as many years?

We have watched in dismay as the increasingly dangerous and precipitous melting of Arctic ice due to climate change is greeted as a business opportunity by the oil, gas and shipping industries. Multinational companies are hoping for huge cost savings on newly opened northern shipping routes, while oil and gas companies are eager for increased drilling access as the ice melts.

photo of a helicopter hovering over the deck of a ship at seaphoto © GreenpeacePhotograph taken on the 19th September with camera phone off a computer screen.
The images show Russian security services abseiling from a helicopter onto the
deck of the Arctic Sunrise and seizing the ship at gunpoint

Shell Oil – one the of the largest companies on Earth and the self-proclaimed ‘best of the best’ – invested more than $5 billion in its catastrophically failed attempt to drill in the American Arctic in 2012. Following the release of the US government report into the fiasco, former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar succinctly summed up Shell’s disastrous Arctic foray by saying: “Shell screwed up.” The report barred Shell from returning to Alaska until it substantially overhauled its systems.

Happily for Shell, there’s a much easier route to Arctic oil: forming a massive joint venture with Gazprom.

On April 8, during President Putin’s visit to the Netherlands, Gazprom signed a memorandum with Royal Dutch Shell to partner in the Russian Arctic. According to the agreement Shell may get one-third of Gazprom’s projects in two Arctic areas: the Chukchi and Pechora Seas. Evidently Shell has decided that last year’s Alaskan debacle was more than enough bad PR, and a back door into the Arctic via teaming up with Russian oil companies will mean less government regulation, less scrutiny, less public and environmental group opposition.

A Greenpeace report, Russian Roulette, shows that Shell’s clever arrangements to get at Arctic resources by any means possible are not at all unique. In fact, many major Western oil giants are jumping on board the Russian Arctic bandwagon, even if it means collaborating with unsavory governments and ill-prepared companies.

Gazprom is already infamous for its poor environmental and safety record. The 2011 Kolskaya disaster killed 57 people, making it one of the most lethal oil rig disasters ever. Yet Gazprom considered the disaster a minor detail, entirely omitting the incident from its reporting on injuries and fatalities in its 2010 – 2011 sustainability report.

Official investigations identified unsafe towing without acknowledgment of weather conditions as one of the main contributing factors to the accident. The company was warned the rig was not suitable for the harsh conditions found off Sakhalin, a remote location far from rescue crews and support infrastructure, but carried on regardless. The rig drilled beyond its approved operational window and without having full safety assessments and was then towed through heavy winter seas, even though towing in winter was expressly forbidden by the rig manufacturer.

photo of a man in a cage, another man adjusting his manaclesphoto © Denis Sinyakov / GreenpeaceArctic Sunrise Captain Peter Willcox (from the USA) at a court in Murmansk.

Another oil giant edging its way into the Arctic via shady deals with Russian companies is Exxon Mobil. The company has teamed up with Rosneft, which is responsible for more than 75 percent of the onshore oil spills in one area of Russia alone in 2011, according to the Russian Environmental Agency. Rosneft is so notorious that it is even the subject of Pussy Riot’s comeback track.

Earlier this year Greenpeace discovered that many of the leases Rosneft had acquired in the Chukchi Sea, as well as other Russian Arctic sites farther east, overlapped with Russian government designated protected areas and even an UNESCO World Heritage site.

It’s estimated at least 1 percent of Russia’s annual oil production, or 5 million tons, is spilled on land every year (equivalent to one Deepwater Horizon-scale leak about every two months). And every 18 months more than four million barrels spews into the Arctic Ocean. Even using conservative official estimates of spillage, Russia is “by far the worst oil polluter in the world.” It is also the world’s largest oil producer, responsible for 13 percent of global output.

The Arctic 30 took such bold actions last month because they were determined to reveal these distressing facts to the global public and make a stand against exploitation of the Arctic. Having acted with the courage of their convictions by peacefully demonstrating against Arctic oil drilling, the Arctic 30 now are facing long sentences in Russian jails.

These brave men and women are prisoners of conscience. As such, they are the responsibility of the entire world. Good people around the world will not stop supporting them until they are set free.

Phil Radford
Phil Radford is the executive director of Greenpeace-USA.

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The Russians need a Greenpeace office in the Kremlin to tell them what they can and can’t do as they’re obviously not getting the message about fossil fuels. Kumi Naido has offered to have a chat about this but without success. The Russians will probably come up with some kind of contrarian whinge about solar and wind not providing enough power or something when it is a known fact that burning wood is a perfect complement to renewables. The mighty UK power plant, Drax, will burn 70,000 tons of wood every day to back up these climate fighting renewable energy machines but this has to be imported from the US using fossil fuel powered ships. Russia, on the other hand, has got plenty of forests ready and waiting to provide biofuel so there really is no excuse for them to delay the fossil fuel phaseout. Greenpeace activists are only peacefully demanding they do this and yet they get arrested and detained. As Greenpeace says, there’s plenty of birds and bats so a few losses from wind turbines is just collateral damage in the war against the climate. So clean green energy by the megagigawat which will then power a clean planet-sustaining economy with millions of green jobs. Maybe one of these new super typhoons will wake their ideas up and that can also be a message for World Leaders to get on the phone to Vlad and tell him to

A) Release the Arctic 30

B) Apologise sincerely to Greenpeace

C) State unequivocably that Greenpeace is not loony.

By worried on Sat, November 09, 2013 at 1:33 pm

@ Al Bore: Your pejorative use of the term “girls” says everything about your…er…. “dated” outlook, so your general perspective on climate? 

Anything positive you’d like to contribute?  Would love to hear your enlightened perspective on the operational safety issues & directly related environmental threats, laid out in some detail above.  Only when you’ve finished decreeing to everyone about what “rights” they have.  Wouldn’t want to interrupt your own micro-dictatorship when it’s in full flow…

@Phil Radford - this is a great and informative article - thanks.

By Siobhan Pestano on Thu, October 24, 2013 at 12:38 am

News Editors,

You have no right to conclude that climate change is a real inevitable threat when science has only agreed on nothing beyond “could be” and have NEVER said or agreed that their own 30 year old “could be” crisis “will” eventually happen.

Science never agreed it will but you editors believe it will. Nice work girls.

And get up to date:

*Occupywallstreet now does not even mention CO2 in its list of demands because of the bank-funded and corporate run carbon trading stock markets ruled by politicians.

*Canada killed Y2Kyoto with a freely elected climate change denying prime minister and nobody cared, especially the millions of scientists warning us of unstoppable warming (a comet hit).

What has to happen for science to agree it WILL be a crisis not just “could be”? Unstoppable warming?

By Al Bore on Tue, October 22, 2013 at 6:32 am

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