A dictionary definition of 'bearing witness' reads: to show by your existence that something is true. This seems to me to be only part of the story.

Bearing witness is one of the founding principles of Greenpeace, up there with Direct Action. Unlike direct action however it doesn't rely on directly stopping something bad from happening. Its power comes from the story it tells, and poignantly for me, the empowerment it brings to those who see the story and then feel compelled to act. So while it doesn't offer the instant gratification for the activist chained to the bulldozer – its affect can be broader, quicker and more powerful – inspiring millions of people who simply look at a photo and are awakened to something that they didn't necessarily know even existed. Once they know they usually act and often in numbers.

“Once you have witnessed an injustice, you cannot claim ignorance as a defence for inaction. You make an ethical choice: to act or not.” - Ben Metcalfe, one of the original Greenpeace crew.

Bearing witness, while being a philosophy, is also a tool – just like direct action, and every tool has the right application at the right time – bearing witness isn't always the right tool for the job, neither is direct action, or a court case, but sometimes it is perfect.

The best example I can think is the drift net campaign back in the 1980's. Here was a practice which was happening thousands of miles out at sea, which was indiscriminately killing millions of fish, marine mammals and birds but not a lot of folks back home knew about it. They just enjoyed the obvious canned results on rye bread, with mayo.

There were a bunch of NGO's, Greenpeace included, who ran a fantastic and sustained direct action campaign against these 'walls of death'. Hindering net setting operations by various direct means, cutting trapped animals out of the nets, and literally pulling hundreds or thousands of kilometres of 'ghost nets' out of the water to stop the killing. This all contributed to the eventual win, but I reckon the biggest contribution probably came from a camera. Activists got onto drift net boats and covertly filmed this horrendous practice,  the images they captured travelled the world and woke tuna eaters up to the ugly side of their lunch. People back home didn't know – but when they saw the images they got well and truly mad and wanted to do something. And they joined the efforts of all these groups, direct actions, political work, consumer work (dolphin friendly cans!). Finally the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution which banned drift net fishing in international waters - effective in December, 1992.

My experience of bearing witness has really woken me up to the power that can come from being at the scene of a crime and letting people at home know all about it with photos and video. In 2005, I was aboard the Rainbow Warrior in the middle of the Tasman sea. We had been campaigning on Bottom Trawling for a year or two already and were looking for a break through. Like drift netting, bottom trawling happens miles out to sea, places where only the fishermen go, and it is unlikely that they would volunteer their personal snaps of the destruction they cause. So there we were, in an inflatable, surrounded by ocean, and albatross, documenting a bottom trawler picking up its nets. Then BAM, a huge Gorgonian fan appears in the net, is taken on board, and then, requiring two solid fisho's to lift its massive weight, is thrown back in the sea – dead after 600 years of living. The day before, the industry had told the public that they didn't hit the bottom with their giant nets, and when they did, there was nothing of any value down there anyway. Click click click of the camera and the lie was exposed. 20 minutes later the image that really brought the horror of bottom trawling to the world was beamed straight into the UN General Assembly, and then people's homes, and the industry took a nice upper cut to the chops.

Today I am back on the Rainbow Warrior at sea, but this time I am sitting off a beautiful Taiwanese Island. We have divers down and are taking pics of some of the beautiful coral that has been saved from destruction buy smart, forward thinking conservation regulations.

Today we are bearing witness in a nice way – showing the world what can be saved, rather than what is being killed. Of course the dark side to all this is that this may be the last chance to see. Lets hope we are not some of the last to bear witness to this beauty.

You can choose to act now by supporting our call for a global network od marine reserves covering 40 percent of the world's oceans.

Thanks for your support!


Christopher Hay, is a Greenpeace Logistics Coordinator from New Zealand

The Rainbow Warrior is currently on the Ocean Defenders tour of East Asia.

Images: © Greenpeace/ Paul Hilton