Warriors of the Rainbow

Twenty-five years ago Saturday, two bombs planted by secret agents working for the French government sank the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbor, New Zealand, killing Fernando Pereira, a photographer and father of two. This was a desperate move by France to stop the activists onboard from bearing witness to its nuclear testing in the South Pacific.

I remember hearing about the attack over my father’s transistor radio in our township outside Durban, South Africa. The apartheid government had recently imposed a state of emergency and it was not often that international news made its way to us. What had happened with the Rainbow Warrior was so outrageous that even we heard about it.

As a young anti-apartheid activist, I was particularly taken with two elements of the event.

The first was that a powerful, democratic government could feel so intimidated by a small group of peaceful men and women holding up banners on a boat that it would resort to violence. It was my first exposure to the Quaker-inspired tradition of bearing witness in order to shine a spotlight on injustices or crimes that might otherwise go unnoticed.

The second was the idea that there existed people who would eschew personal gain and dedicate their lives to the greater good of our planet. Coming from a place where the struggle was inherently personal, the fact that the Greenpeace crew was planning to sail out to the middle of the ocean to oppose nuclear testing, which would not touch them anymore than it would touch anyone else, was an epiphany.

Of course, Greenpeace is not alone in its struggle to save the planet. Nongovernmental organizations and civil society — trade unions, faith-based organizations, school groups and others — have been working independently or together for decades to promote the cause of social justice and fight the great threats of the day.

A couple of years after the sinking of the first Rainbow Warrior, Greenpeace volunteers bought a used trawler and transformed it into a new Rainbow Warrior. Many of the same crew then continued their struggle against the French government until it finally gave up its nuclear testing program in 1996. The saying of the day became: “You can’t sink a Rainbow.”

While the threat of nuclear destruction is not over, a danger barely recognized at the time has taken its place as the No. 1 threat to our planet. Climate change has now become the biggest threat to security and peace in the future. Kofi Annan’s Global Forum estimates that in 2008 alone, 300,000 people died of the consequences of climate change.

Unlike nuclear testing, climate change is difficult to “bear witness” to because its causes (carbon emissions) lie in so many different factors and its resolution will require major, international cooperation of business leaders, politicians and other decision-makers. This does not mean civil society can or should stop trying to hold leaders accountable for changes they are unwilling to make.

History tells us that whatever injustice we face — whether it was apartheid in South Africa, civil rights in the United States, a woman’s right to choose — it was only when determined men and women were willing to stand up and say, “Enough is enough, I am prepared to peacefully break the law and even go to prison to get our message across,” that change finally happened.

When all other attempts at discussion or negotiation have faltered, these organizations must have the option of turning to civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, we have witnessed a dramatic shrinking of democratic space, with civil rights being curtailed beyond measure. In the past 9 years, 65 countries have passed laws cutting the rights of NGOs and dictating what they can and can’t do.

Speaking last week at an international conference on the promotion of democracy and human rights, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it well when she said, “Democracies don’t fear their own people. They recognize that citizens must be free to come together, to advocate and agitate.”

At Greenpeace we find that even the peaceful act of hanging banners now often comes with greater consequences. After last December’s failed U.N. climate talks, four of our activists were detained for 22 days after holding up a banner at a head of state dinner reading, “Politicians Talk, Leaders Act.”

Much has changed in the quarter century since the first Rainbow Warrior was bombed. Fortunately, the two elements that so impressed me at the time, are just as valid today as they were back then: the power of people to change the will of governments, and the dedication of those committed to saving the planet for future generations.

According to all those who knew him, Fernando Periera did not consider dying for his cause. Nor do the great majority of those who speak out against injustice today. All they ask is a space in which to be heard, a place to speak truth to power, when those who have the capacity to make the changes necessary to save our planet seem unwilling to do so.

Greenpeace was founded on a prophecy from Canada’s First Nation peoples which reads: “There will come a time when the Earth grows sick and when it does a tribe will gather from all the cultures of the world who believe in deeds and not words. They will work to heal it...they will be known as the ‘Warriors of the Rainbow.”’ If we are to be successful in our fight against catastrophic climate change then perhaps we all need to become Rainbow Warriors.

Kumi Naidoo, the executive director of Greenpeace International.