Then & now: Iceland, Greenpeace, and whales, Part III

By Rémi Parmentier

Feature story - October 9, 2003
Iceland has begun whaling again after 14 years. Surely such a retrograde decision must mean Iceland is a rogue state when it comes to the environment, a home of barbaric rapers of the Earth? Not so, says Rémi Parmentier in the concluding chapter of a three-part journey back in time. From his voyage with Greenpeace in 1978 through his experience in the 90s of working with Iceland in international fora, Parmentier brings his unique perspective to bear on Iceland, the environment, and whales.

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 remarkable.

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 non-reprocessing option.

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 eventually adopted in 1993 by the Parties to the London Convention on ocean dumping.

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 Decision 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 practices.

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 hours.

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.