Crewmember Pete Bouquet paints the Rainbow Warrior, 1978
Long after my long-haired hippy voyage to Iceland as an
anti-whaling crusader, I had the privilege of working with
representatives of Iceland at a number of international fora, and
often their contributions to environmental protection was
In the 1990s for example, Greenpeace was campaigning for the
elimination of persistent organic pollutants, a large group of
toxic substances that concentrate in cold sea-water environments,
contaminating fish, marine mammals and other species (including
humans). A major international environmental treaty known as the POPs Convention, adopted in 2001 in
Stockholm, finds its origin in a speech that was prepared by two
Icelandic officials, Dr. David Egilsson and Magnus Johanneson, at a
meeting of the Governing Council of the UN Environment Programme
(UNEP) that I attended in 1995 in Nairobi.
Likewise, it can be said that it was thanks to Iceland acting in
coalition with Ireland, Denmark and Norway, that in June 2000 it
was decided that the continued discharge and emission of
radioactive wastes from the nuclear reprocessing plants at
Sellafield (UK) and La Hague (France) were inconsistent with the
international treaty that regulates marine pollution in the North
East Atlantic, known as the OSPAR
Convention. There is mounting evidence of high concentrations
of radioactive Technitium-99 and other radionuclides discharged at
Sellafield and La Hague in seaweeds, shrimps and other marine life,
which corroborates Greenpeace concerns expressed since the 1970s.
This pollution moved up along the coasts of Denmark, Norway and up
towards Iceland; thanks to the determination of these three
countries(and notwithstanding fierce opposition by France and the
UK), the OSPAR Commission adopted a legally-binding Decision
calling for dry-storage of radioactive fuel, the
Of course, France and the UK, who did not vote in favour, have
continued to discharge reprocessing radioactive wastes, but the
OSPAR Decision sponsored by Iceland and others was nevertheless
important. Thanks to that decision, France and the UK have lost
their number one argument: they can no longer say that discharging
these radioactive wastes is in line with international
environmental law and policy, and countries such as Iceland who
oppose these discharges have gained the moral high ground.
Iceland was also traditionally a strong voice at the UN's
International Maritime Organisation (IMO) pushing for the total
prohibition of radioactive and industrial waste dumping from ships
at sea (a goal that was promoted by Greenpeace for many years and
adopted in 1993 by the Parties to the London Convention on ocean
The ban on ocean dumping is very effective; to the best of our
knowledge, since 1993 no ship has been sent out to deliberately
dump radioactive wastes at sea. Even the Russian Federation, which
keeps moaning that it would rather start dumping at sea again, have
had to abide.
Iceland also supported the Greenpeace view openly at meetings of
the UN's International Maritime Organisation (IMO) when we demanded
that the countries shipping high-level radioactive wastes,
irradiated nuclear fuel and plutonium by sea be held liable and
forced to inform neighbouring coastal states in advance. Last but
not least, when in 1995 Greenpeace occupied the controversial Brent
Spar decommissioned offshore installation to prevent it from being
dumped in the Atlantic, Iceland was one of the countries which
understood Greenpeace's message: if Shell and the UK were let off
the hook with this first dump, perhaps hundreds more would follow
(thereby raising safety problems for trawlers, potential sources of
pollution and the broader issue of industrial responsibility).
Iceland supported a call for a moratorium on the dumping of
offshore installations, which led three years later to a unanimous
by coastal states to prohibit permanently the dumping of
decommissioned offshore installations at sea.
Like all large fishing countries, Iceland is facing a crisis and
many challenges of course. But when I used to represent Greenpeace
as observer at the World Trade Organisation (WTO), I was also
impressed to see the Icelanders actively campaigning for the
elimination of government subsidies to fishing fleets. Current
industrial fishing practices, particularly in the European Union,
have little to do with free and sustainable trade, because the
governments are using taxpayers' money to increase the efficiency
of fishing fleets or maintain them afloat artificially, with
devastating effects on the environment and the sustainability of
developing countries whose resources are being ravaged by the big
commercial fleets. Together with New Zealand, Iceland has led the
charge at the WTO since at least 1999 for the elimination of
fisheries subsidies, and this is a good thing, even if not
everything is perfect with these two countries' own fisheries
Towards an End to the Misunderstanding?
The history of Greenpeace includes a patchwork of missed
opportunities and misunderstandings with different communities.
It was in the best interest of the industrial sectors we were
taking on to promote the image of Greenpeace as an organisation
that goes after a nation or a community rather than after a
specific unsustainable practice. And - truly -- this perception was
also sometimes exacerbated by our own mistakes and lack of
diplomatic or pedagogic skills.
The case of Greenpeace's difficult relation with France from the
1970s to the mid 1990s when we were campaigning against nuclear
testing is probably the most extreme example. Yet, once the nuclear
testing campaign ended (i.e. when French nuclear testing ended and
a nuclear test ban treaty was adopted in Geneva) Greenpeace's and
France's mutual relations became more rational, to the extent that
President Jacques Chirac at a recent meeting with French NGO
representatives was heard saying, in relation to the issue of
illegal logging in West African forests, that he was "closer to the
position of Greenpeace than that of his own administration".
The first time I held a meeting in Reykjavik with an Icelandic
Environment minister (it must have been in the spring of 1990, to
discuss marine pollution policy issues), I was asked to come to his
office in the evening after all the staff would be gone, so that
no-one could see us. Fortunately, this meeting served to break the
ice, because since then, I have never been asked to come at odd
On a Saturday night in the winter of 1995, Clif Curtis - a
former Greenpeace political officer - and I were drinking beer in a
bar in downtown Reykjavik when a couple of young Icelandic women
sat at our table and asked us what we were doing in the country.
When I said that we were participating in a United Nations
conference on marine pollution hosted by the Icelandic government,
they thought it was great, but as soon as Clif told them that we
represented Greenpeace at that conference, the two women yelled at
us so much (It was not their first beer of the night)that we had to
leave quickly and find another bar.
That evening I felt very sad when I realised what had happened
to these young Icelandic women: in 1978 when we first came to
Iceland with the Rainbow Warrior, they could not have been more
than 5 years old at most. And I could imagine them being children
and hearing many dinner conversations, many TV news shows, and many
classroom lectures, where people were talking about a group of
foreigners on a boat out there trying to deprive Iceland of their
whale resources. When a country has no enemy its leaders like to
create some to keep people together (ask George Bush). This was
what had happened to these two young women, and to Iceland at
large, with Greenpeace. For 25 years an entire generation has been
brought up in the belief that Greenpeace was a fierce enemy of
their nation. What a waste!
As I was writing this paper, I saw on the Internet that the
Rainbow Warrior has been greeted in Iceland by a group of kids
making a provocative whale meat barbecue alongside. There are
powerful forces gearing up now in Iceland to resume commercial
whaling. Some of those forces are interested in damaging the
relationship of Greenpeace with Iceland for another entire
generation. Watch out!
This is Part III of a three-part
series by Rémi Parmentier, a crew member on the first voyage of the
Rainbow Warrior, which took Greenpeace to Iceland to confront
commercial whaling there for the first time in 1978. Rémi has
worked for Greenpeace in different capacities for 27 years,
specialising in international environmental policy and treaties.
Recently he formed with Kelly Rigg, another Greenpeace veteran, The Varda Group for
Environment and Sustainability. The views expressed in this
article are Rémi's; they do not necessarily reflect all aspects of
Greenpeace's current policy.
You can read Part I here.
You can read Part II here.