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All 30 members of the crew of the Greenpeace ship, Arctic Sunrise, have been charged with piracy after attempting to board Gazprom’s Prirazlomnaya oil platform in the Barents Sea. This Greenpeace direct action is one from their regular toolbox of direct action.

Last year, Greenpeace activists boarded thePrirazlomnaya, hanging a banner that read ‘Don’t Kill the Arctic’ and closing down the oil rig’s operation for fifteen hours. Three days later, other Greenpeace activists chained their inflatable boat to the anchor chain of the Anna Akhmatova. In a statement Greenpeace said that the ship, ‘is not moving anywhere and so the platform workers can’t get on-board, effectively stopping its preparations to drill for oil in the Arctic.’ The response from Russian authorities then was not to prosecute, but this year the charge is piracy.

What is behind these charges of piracy and what chance of success is there? In this article I will explore some possible motives behind the piracy charges.

Political power

Arctic sea ice is disappearing, opening up the Arctic for resource and economic use. There are billions of dollars of petrochemical resources up for grabs and the Arctic shipping route is opening up. About two weeks ago the first cargo freighter travelled from Vancouver to Finland. Ironically, this ship was loaded with coal. Control of Arctic petrochemical resources is a major interest for Russia. In 2010, Russia tried to extend its territorial claims in the Arctic region by planting a Russian flag on the seabed and sending two expeditions to extend its claimed Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). There are intense behind the scenes disputes between Russia, the USA, Canada, Norway and Denmark over who has access to the resources of the Arctic.

In September, the first Chinese freighter travelled past Russian territory and the Arctic Council has admitted China as a member this year. Again last month, Russia’s only nuclear powered guided missile cruiser led a flotilla to the Novosibirsk Islands and reopened a military base that had been closed for 20 years. This base will oversee all maritime traffic across the Arctic Ocean.

Russia wants to benefit from, and control, the wealth that an ice free Arctic presents. This is also why Greenpeace was protesting the risk of environmental damage Arctic oil extraction represents, both to the Arctic environment and increasing global warming.

There are suggestions that the harshness of the charges is an example of Russia flexing power in the region. The Greenpeace activists are in this sense pawns in a geopolitical fight, where Russia is moving to position itself as the undisputed superpower in the region.

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I would also consider that there is a more subtle force at play here. To explain this I will have to mention some terrestrial history. The 1960s was the birth of the modern environmental movement and activism. It took 20 years for a counter response to properly begin. This backlash against environmentalism developed in a co-ordinated way firstly in the United States. The first legislative part of this backlash can be dated to changes in the US Forestry legislation in 1988, when right-wing groups influenced the legislation to criminalise anti-logging protests. The development and activities of anti-environmentalists, called the ‘wise use movement’ in the US, has been extensively documented by Will Potter in his book, and website of the same name, Green is the New Red.

The crucial part of this anti-environmentalism has been the massaging of environmental activism into the realm of terrorism. The ideas of the wise use movement have been disseminating from the US across the world and one of those ideas is that of the ‘ecoterrorist’.

When examined this word is nonsense. It is a word that conflates terrorism with the activities of environmentalists. It was coined and promoted by anti-environmentalist, right-wing groups. Ron Arnold, a respected cultural warrior against environmentalists says that he invented the word specifically to put the public fear of terrorism into the actions of environmentalists. He reason is famously quoted, ‘“We are sick to death of environmentalism and so we shall destroy it. We will not allow our right to own property to be stripped from us by a bunch of eco-fascists.” … “Environmental activists not only are working to stifle America’s economic growth, but they are a breeding ground for terrorism in the homeland”. … “Our goal is to destroy, to eradicate the environmental movement ... We’re mad as hell. We’re not going to take it anymore. We’re dead serious - we’re going to destroy them.” ... “We want to be able to exploit the environment for private gain, absolutely ... and we want people to understand that is a noble goal.”

This is the core of the anti-environmental movement. One of their tools is to promote and employ ecoterrorism as a threat. In the US their success can be seen; the FBI considers environmental and animal rights activism as the number one domestic terrorism threat. News organisations and the media routinely use the term ecoterrorist. In Tasmania the word has been used by some segments of the community. As well, groups like ‘Markets for Change’ have been called ‘economic terrorists’.

But at sea, the question is how to get environmental activists pushed into a similarly negative and harsh legal frame. The answer is piracy.

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Piracy and Greenpeace

Firstly, I will mention that Greenpeace has been convicted of piracy and terrorism in the past, but more of that later.

The definition of piracy is found in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Article 101 defines piracy as,

‘Piracy consists of any of the following acts:
(a) any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed:
(1) on the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft;
(2) against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State;
(b) any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or of an aircraft with knowledge of facts making it a pirate ship or aircraft;
(c) any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described in subparagraph (a) or (b).’

So where was the Arctic Sunrise? Greenpeace says they were outside the 12 nautical mile Russian territorial sea where domestic Russian law applies. However, they were within the Russian EEZ. The crucial point here is that if Greenpeace were ‘in a place outside of the jurisdiction of any State’. The argument is complicated in that the part of the UNCLOS that contains the definition of piracy is guided by a general provision that defines the High Seas as; ‘… all parts of the sea that are not included in the exclusive economic zone, in the territorial sea or in the internal waters of a State, or in the archipelagic waters of an archipelagic State.’

Another point of contention is that the Russian prosecutors have charged all the crew with piracy. This indicates that they are taking the position that the crew were participating in a ‘… act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or of an aircraft with knowledge of facts making it a pirate ship or aircraft.’ The question here is if the crew knew they were operating as pirates or they were acting from a deeply held moral belief that they were trying to prevent harm to the Arctic environment.

A further complication is that the UNCLOS definition defines piracy as ‘against another ship’. The Prirazlomnaya oil platform is not technically a ship as it doesn’t move under its own power and is not self-navigable; it is an oil rig that is towed and positioned by other ships.

Here I return to the hidden anti-environmental agenda. Russia is clearly trying to shut down environmental protest. The Prirazlomnaya oil platform has been subject to previous protest actions, as have other oil rig platforms in the region (such as the Liev Eriksson), so it is in the oil industries interest to close protest activity down. The Russian Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, has said, ‘Concern for the environment must not be a cloak for illegal actions, no matter how high-minded the principles motivating participants.’ While Russian President Vladimir Putin has said, ‘Of course, they are not pirates, but, formally speaking, they tried to seize an oil platform.’

Here both comments indicate that the protest action is considered illegal because it is an attack on the proper development of an economic resource. An action, identified by Medvedev and Putin as ‘not piracy’ and ‘concern for the environment’ has become piracy. It is a coupling of environmental activism and the worst crime committed at sea; piracy.

In essence it seems that the environmentally motivated act of protest, a political act, is now an act of piracy. The UNCLOS definition clearly defines piracy as an act ‘committed for private ends by the crew or thepassengers of a private ship.’ Private ends has been generally accepted in international law as profit. Environmental activism is excluded, for example, His Excellency Jose Luis Jesus, a judge at the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea, has written that the, ‘[private ends] requirement seems to exclude sheer politically motivated acts directed at ships or their crew from the definition of piracy.’

Additionally his opinion was that, ‘…the “private ends’’ criterion seems to exclude acts of violence and depredation exerted by environmentally-friendly groups or persons, in connection with their quest for marine environment protection. This seems to be clearly a case in which the “private ends’’ criterion seems to be excluded.’

He concluded that such acts would qualify and be dealt with by using the maritime terrorism clauses in the international Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts of Violence Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation (the SUA Convention).

This private ends definition was recently countered by the US 9th Circuit Court which ruled that the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society engaged in piracy while conducting their campaign against Japanese whaling in Antarctica in 2012.

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There have been two debates circling within the international maritime law community recently. One is whether the 9th Circuit Court was correct in broadening the definition of piracy to include acts of environmental protest. The other is why the case proceeded against Sea Shepherd under the UNCLOS piracy law and not the SUA Convention.

Sea Shepherd was initially released from the charge of piracy but this was appealed and the new judge found against Sea Shepherd. Part of his reasoning used a prior conviction of Greenpeace for the crime of piracy.

In 1986, the Belgian Court of Cassation found Greenpeace guilty of piracy when Greenpeace activists interfered with tanker ships legally dumping chemical waste at sea. The court found that Greenpeace was acting for the ‘private ends’ of Greenpeace and was therefore subject to the piracy definition in UNCLOS. This was the first, and only, conviction of an environmental group under UNCLOS until 2012.

The 9th Circuit Court accepted this ruling and extended it by applying a common definition of ‘private’ based on the Webster American Dictionary. Private means not public, in that public is what is done by Government for public ends. Private is a person, or group, doing what they want to do. Under this broadened definition Sea Shepherd as a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), is by definition ‘private’ and is acting for ‘private ends’ in its protest actions and are pirates.

If the Russian prosecutors can overcome the problem of an oil rig not being a ship; if they can overcome the difficulty of whether or not an EEZ is ‘a place outside of the jurisdiction of any State’ and defeats the ‘high seas’ provision; if they can establish that the entire crew of the Arctic Sunriseare an ‘organised criminal’ group who were aware that their actions were piratical; then the charge of piracy will be relatively easy to prove, based on the broadened definition of piracy to include environmental protest.

None of this is set in stone, how the charges are prosecuted and the arguments will develop. However, one thing is clear; the charges are political and intended to shut down protest by levying the harshest charges and continuing the raising of environmental protest to piracy. Since the mid-2000s there have been some research articles arguing that piracy can be conflated with terrorism, particularly in relation to Somali pirates. It is conceivable that in a few years, marine based protests as done by Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd will be prosecuted as terrorism.

Finally, I said I would mention the terrorism conviction against Greenpeace.

In 2005, Greenpeace was protesting against genetically modified organisms (GMO) in Europe and they did what they do best; political theatre designed to raise public awareness of an issue- they hung a banner off the side of theheadquarters of the Danish Agriculture Association building in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The banner was, ‘No to GMO swine’, on the issue of GMO pig factory farming. Greenpeace was convicted under Danish Anti-Terrorism legislation concerning the financing of terrorism. The organisation was fined a total of 30,000 Kroner but the prosecutor said he had hoped for a fine of 100,000 Kroner to send a ‘stronger message’...

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Nick McKim: Support rallies for Arctic 30 climate change heroes

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Pic: Ella Richmond

• Speech by Reece Turner Saturday 5 October - Hobart Event in Solidarity with the Arctic 30

Thanks people for coming, my name is Reece Turner, and I’m a campaigner with Greenpeace.

Firstly, I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land - the Muwinina (mu wee nee nah) people - the original indigenous custodians of this land on which we are gathered.

Today we have come together in solidarity and support of 30 brave men and women including Colin Russell because they have risked their safety for a greater cause and now find themselves in a grave and unpredictable situation.

Today we’ll hear a bit about Colin - how he got into the trouble he’s in and the things he believes in which led him there. We’ll hear from some people who know him best. We’ll also hear from Australia’s most highly regarded environmental activist Bob Brown about the importance of personal sacrifice in the struggles for environmental and social justice.

And before that I want to tell you about the reasons behind what Colin, the other activists and the Arctic Sunrise were doing in the russian arctic in the first place… and what exactly has happened to Colin and the other 28 in the last 10 days. I want to explain why I think that the battle to protect the Arctic will become the defining campaign of our generation.

10 days ago two Greenpeace activists took peaceful action at an oil platform far above the arctic circle, by attempting to climb and establish themselves on its outside structure.

The oil platform is owned and run by the state-controlled oil giant, Gazprom - a company that has teamed up with Shell in a bid to become the first to pump oil from the pristine Arctic, despite having no credible plan to deal with a spill.

The oil industry in Russia is one of the most environmentally devastating in the world. More than 30 million barrels of oil are spilt on land each year. That’s seven times the amount that polluted the Gulf of Mexico during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

As is clear from video footage released by Russian authorities, the Russian security officials reacted aggressively to the peaceful protest by waving armed guns at the activists, firing warning shots and targeting the activists with water canons before detaining them under armed guard.

Then, just 12 hours later as the sun was rising, armed Russian security forces boarded and illegally seized the Arctic Sunrise in international waters. At least 15 balaclava wearing, fully armed military personnel rappelled from a hovering helicopter onto the vessel, rounded up the crew at gunpoint and frogmarched them onto the deck before detaining them in the ship’s mess.

It is most likely that it was a Russian crew member, Colin and a very gentle, softly spoke young lady called Alex, who I work with in our Sydney office, managed to lock themselves inside the radio room and get word to the outside world. As the action was unfolding, it was probablhy Alex who sent one last tweet which read

This is pretty terrifying. Loud banging. Screaming in Russian. They’re still trying to kick in the door.

This is the most violent assault perpetrated upon Greenpeace since the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbour in 1985 by French secret agents.

The Arctic Sunrise was then towed to the Siberian port of Murmansk, during which time the crew were cut off from the outside world. Upon reaching land all 30 were remanded in custody in separate cells and told that they would not receive bail. Russian law permits for them to be detained for two months, while the Russian authorities investigate charges.

But it was not until late on Wednesday that charges of piracy began to be laid. All 28 crew members including Colin plus two freelance journalists - a videographer and a photographer - have now been charged with piracy.

This charge carries a jail term of up to 15 years in Russia.

A large number of internationally renowned legal experts have been scathing of the russian authorities behaviour and of the charges of piracy that have now been levelled at the Arctic 30. In fact, in a speech to the Arctic council whilst these events were unfurling Vladimir Putin said: “...it’s completely obvious that of course they (the Greenpeace crew) are not pirates.”

In fact in news just in from a few hours ago the Dutch government has announced it will initiate arbitration proceedings against Russia under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea to secure the release of 28 Greenpeace International activists, plus a freelance photographer and a freelance videographer and the Arctic Sunrise vessel which is flagged to the Dutch Govt.

But why the Arctic - what’s going on up there that’s so important?

It took about 5 days for the Arctic Sunrise to be towed from where it was boarded by russian authorities in international waters to the Russian military port of Murmansk on the north west Russia not far from the Sweden and Finnish borders.

During that time news came through celebrating a milestone in Arctic history. The first transport of a large freighter through the northwest passage between Canada and Finland had begun.
This is only now possible because the arctic ice sheet is receding. The Arctic has lost 75 percent of its summer sea ice volume over the past three decades.

Sending freight through the arctic between north america and Europe reduces shipping time by about a week and also enables larger vessels that wouldn’t fit through the panama canal.
Ironically this freighter was carrying coal - one of the most polluting fossil fuels - the main driver of dangerous climate change.

So we have this crazy situation where as climate change melts the Arctic ice, oil companies are moving in to extract more of the fossil fuels that caused the melt in the first place.

Last year, the Dutch oil giant Shell undertook exploration activities in the US arctic in the narrow summer window when the ice recedes. This ended in disaster when one of their ageing rigs ran aground in rough seas off the coast of Alaska. They called off operations this year and instead announced a partnership with Gazprom in the Russian arctic where of course environmental safeguards are far lower. We know from previously classified US government documents that dealing with oil spills in the freezing waters is “almost impossible” and inevitable mistakes would shatter the fragile Arctic environment.

To drill in the Arctic, oil companies have to drag icebergs out the way of their rigs and use giant hoses to melt floating ice with warm water. If they are left to do this, a catastrophic oil spill is just a matter of time.

This incredible risk and the perversity of oil drilling in the arctic threatens not only the amazing wilderness of the arctic, the polar bears, narwhals and many other incredible species that exist there - it also threatens our very own survival.

This, I believe, is what Colin and the rest of the Arctic 30 were trying to draw attention to.

In the past few days I’ve been asked by people, well what did Greenpeace expect?

You’re up in the arctic, provoking an incredibly powerful and proud Government who have huge wealth to gain from drilling for oil.

To that I would firstly say that the response from the Russian authorities was wildly disproportionate to the peaceful protests that is the hallmark of Greenpeace non-violent direct action.

But what I’d also say is that this question of “well, what did you expect?” is a sad reflection of the priorities of our Governments and indeed our own resignation that Governments will crack down on those standing up to climate vandals like Gazprom. We all expect that Governments like Russia and indeed Governments like Australia and others around the world will act to protect the short-term interests of fossil fuel giants at the expense of its citizens who will bear the brunt of climate change.

Colin and the rest of the Arctic 30 were there to present this choice to Russia in the arctic and sadly (although perhaps not surprisingly) Govt authorities sided with big oil over people. The fate of 30 peaceful activists charged with piracy in the Russian Arctic might come to define our era.

We need to change the expectation that Governments will back short term fossil fuel profits over people. But this expectation can’t just be changed by Colin, Alex and 28 other people. It needs you to help them. Firstly, we need to get them out. We need to demonstrate that oil companies can not call upon Governments to lock up those who shine a spotlight on their criminal activities.

Starting today, I want to ask you all to stand with Colin and Alex and demand better so that we can expect better.

And there are two things you can do right now.

Firstly you can sign a letter to the Russian Ambassador in Canberra, demanding for the Arctic 30’s release. Right now we are just edging up to close to 1 million people who have called on the Russian authorities to release the Arctic 30

Secondly, you can write your own personal message of support to Colin and all the Arctic 30 at the stall today.

Thanks again to everyone for coming out today.

I’d also like to send a special note of thanks to the media here today for respecting Colin’s family’s privacy. They are doing incredibly well however they would like to refrain from talking directly to the media at this time and I’d ask that the media continue to respect that request.

Solidarity events like this one are happening today in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane and in fact in over 140 cities in 45 countries around the world.

I’m sure that Colin, Alex and all the Arctic 30 will be incredibly touched by the turn out today and by the messages of support you can lend your voices to.

But to really do justice to them and their efforts we need to keep the spotlight shining on them, to remind others of what they were doing in the arctic and why they were there.

To the people who say “what did they expect” we need to help change their expectations.

We need to build a movement so strong that Colin and the Arctic 30 are seen by the entire world as heroes and not pirates. And it is only then that we will have a chance of creating a world where we expect that Governments protect our future instead of the companies who want to drill for oil in the Arctic.