Greenpeace activist in a polar bear suit holds a placard during a protest in Moscow October 5, 2013.(Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)
By now most readers have heard of the “Arctic 30” — a group of Greenpeace protesters plus two journalists who have been detained by Russian authorities and charged with “piracy” for their involvement in staging a protest in the Arctic, attempting to hang a banner on an oil rig in the Arctic — the first of its kind in these waters.
The group is now navigating the dubious Russian legal system and is the focus of international lobbying efforts.
One reaction I’ve encountered — mostly on Facebook — is that these people deserved to get in trouble for being so stupid as to stage such a stunt in an undemocratic country where free speech is unknown; they were foolish, the argument goes, for expecting kid glove treatment from a government known for its brutal oppression and jailing of political prisoners. (Case in point: the all-girl rock band Pussy Riot.)
While the government’s arrest of the Greenpeace activists was not unexpected, I cannot join with those who condemn them for being foolish. For in fact, without acts of selfless courage like this, nothing will stop drilling in the Arctic by Russia or other circumpolar countries.
Before the protest action and arrests, who had heard of the “Prirazlomnaya oil platform”?
I’m reminded of the courageous actions of Greenpeace founder Bob Hunter back in the 1970s standing in front of an ice-breaking ship heading straight at him, that came to a halt only a few metres away. Hunter was blocking the ship as part of the organization’s famous protest of the seal hunt in Newfoundland; had the ship not stopped in time (and these things don’t stop on a dime) he would have been killed by both the boat and the frigid waters. I’ll never forget that film footage (that I only encountered recently) and its force as a reminder of how committed the early Greenpeace activists were to drawing the media’s — and by extension the world’s — attention to that issue, and others.
The thought of Arctic drilling is very disturbing, especially in light of BP’s disastrous Deepwater Horizon incident in April 2010. Remember how long it took to stop the outflow of oil? Remember how ineffective were the initial attempts? Remember how much more oil flowed out than the company initially reported, and how much more damaging to the environment the incident was, compared to early estimates? Remember the damage to the health of response teams spraying oil dispersants without proper HazMat attire (even though the company knew workers ought to be wearing this gear)? Remember how Halliburton was fined millions of dollars for changing the files on its risks assessments to BP after the incident, to hide its own complicity?
All of that occurred in a democratic country subject to the (imperfect) rule of law! Imagine what will happen when a Russian oil rig explodes or fails one day. Imagine an even less effectual response, and fewer repercussions for the offending company and operators. And then imagine the level of possible damage to the precious Arctic ecosystem.
No, I have to say I support the so-called Arctic 30, even more because of the “foolish” risks they took trying to hang that banner. Are we to reserve our approval and admiration only for activists who play it safe, only staging media events in politically safe environments?
Their activities and current predicament should get us all thinking about what’s about to happen in the Arctic, which underscores the need for us to wean ourselves off our oil dependency and come up with other energy sources and strategies.
I leave you with an article below from The Atlantic that neatly explains the geo-politics of Russia’s Arctic oil drilling plans, and also an online petition from the team at Avaaz. Read the article, sign the petition, and continue to follow this story.
And if you’re in a position to do so, help bring pressure on Russia’s government to free the protesters. And ultimately to not drill for oil in the Arctic.
What Russia’s Treatment of Greenpeace Activists Reveals About its Arctic Policy
By Andrew Foxall
Greenpeace activist in a polar bear suit holds a placard during a protest in Moscow October 5, 2013. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)
In far north Russia in a city called Murmansk, 30 people have been detained and two journalists have been charged with “piracy” for their role in Greenpeace’s protest against Artic oil drilling at the Prirazlomnaya oil platform. This event seems like yet another skirmish in the “new Cold War,” much heralded in the aftermath of Russia’s planting of its flag on the Arctic seabed in August 2007.But Russia’s stance on the Greenpeace protestors is not primarily about the Greenpeace protest: It’s about the future of the Arctic. Will international actors seek to restrict Russia’s activities in a region that, for a variety of geographical and historical reasons, it sees as its own? For most of the 1990s Russia’s interests in the region were ill-defined, but since 2000 it has adopted a more active stance on the Arctic; a region in which around one-fifth of Russian territory lies and upon whose resources Russia’s global economic competitiveness will, in the future, largely depend. In 2003, Russia resumed the Soviet-era practice of sending manned drifting ice stations to the North Pole. The year after Russia planted a flag in the Arctic seabed in 2007, it adopted a formal Arctic policy document. These developments were accompanied, on occasions, by self-serving nationalist and aggressive rhetoric.
In stark contrast, between 2009 and 2011 Russia pursued a policy of cooperation in the region, suggesting a realization by the Kremlin that if its relations with the other Arctic states improved, then it could focus on the economic benefits the area offers. In April 2009, the Arctic Council (of which Russia is a member) proclaimed an atmosphere of “complete mutual understanding” in Arctic affairs. In September 2010, Russia resolved a 40-year-old dispute with Norway over dividing the Barents Sea (and part of the Arctic Ocean) between the two countries. And, in May 2011 the Arctic Council signed its first legally binding treaty.
While Russia claims that its response to the challenges provided by climate change and the opening up of the Arctic is purely peaceful, its behavior since 2011 suggests otherwise. In July 2012, Russia began construction on a fourth Borei-class submarine, designed to carry its newest and most powerful intercontinental nuclear missile, the Bulava, while patrolling the Arctic Ocean. In February, President Vladimir Putin claimed that Russia’s Arctic territories are under threat from unnamed powers. Last month, meanwhile, Russia began construction of a new
military base in the Arctic, in the New Siberian Island archipelago.
Russia didn’t crack down on the Greenpeace protests because Greenpeace was trying to bring attention to the potential environmental impacts of hydrocarbon exploration. Putin is clear that Arctic oil and gas will form the basis of Russia’s future economic prosperity, and thus Russia wants to send the message that anybody who attempts to interfere in its Arctic activities will feel the full legal and political force of the state. Its recent behavior suggests that, however unlikely it may be, it will not rule out using military force either.
The Kremlin decided long ago that it would act pragmatically in the Arctic — cooperating with the West on issues of mutual interest, and diverging from the West where interests clashed. The West, however, has so far failed to understand that in the Arctic, much like in Syria, Russia acts, first and foremost, in its own interests.
For now, international attention is focused on a courtroom in Murmansk. But later this year, it will be on New York, where Russia is expected to re-submit its 2001 application to the UN to extend its continental shelf to include 1.2 million square kilometers of Arctic seabed. It is the outcome of this event that will have the most far-reaching implications for the future of the Arctic.
Ana Paula is a 31-year old from Brazil who wanted to peacefully protest Russia’s plans to drill the Arctic.Now she, along with her 29 crewmates from the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise, is locked in a Russian jail with no release in sight. But we can throw her and the rest of her crew a lifeline.
The Greenpeace staff, some in solitary confinement, are now facing fifteen years in prison on trumped up charges of piracy. Their crime? Hanging a banner on a Russian oil rig to protest dangerous deepwater drilling in one of the earth’s most beautiful and fragile places. Many western governments have already spoken out, but now Ana Paula and Greenpeace are asking the Avaaz community to help build a truly global outcry.
Together we can call on some of Russia’s strongest trade and political partners — Brazil, India, South Africa and the EU — to call for the release of the Arctic 30. Let’s reach 1 million to free Ana Paula and her friends. Once we hit that mark, Avaaz will project their faces in key public places to keep this story at the top of the news:
This is what Ana Paula’s sister said about her: “In many ways, my sister is a typical Brazilian — talkative, friendly, and full of life. But she’s also simply extraordinary, passionate about nature since she was little, and never hesitating to stand up for it even at great personal risk.”
Now Ana Paula and her crewmates could lose 15 years of their lives, all for trying to hang a banner on a Gazprom oil rig, the first of its kind in the Arctic. This is an aggressive backlash against defenders of our environment — stopping oil drilling in the Arctic is about protecting the last great wilderness on earth, where oil spills are almost impossible to clean up.
Greenpeace has hired great lawyers who point out that the 30 were arrested in international waters, making Russia the one violating the international Law of the Sea. But being on the right side of the law may not be enough to regain their freedom, and their dreadful fate may be sealed soon unless the international community lets Russia know that this is a scandal that’s not going to go away.
Avaaz has a particularly powerful voice in many of these countries with huge memberships — 5 million in Brazil alone! If we all weigh in now and build a one million strong petition, Avaazers in Brazil, South Africa, India, and the EU can ramp up the pressure. Sign now to help build 1 million people to help free the Arctic 30:
These Arctic 30 were brave enough to confront the oil industry in one of the last untouched places on earth. They are being silenced and intimidated by the oil industry for their bravery. Our community has stood strong for campaigners across the world — now let’s free these 30.
With hope and determination,
Jamie, Alex, Emma, Lisa, Ricken, Marie, Julien, Diego and the rest of the Avaaz team