Page - July 7, 2017
On 11 July 1985, news spread of dramatic explosions on the Auckland waterfront. Greenpeace flagship the Rainbow Warrior had been sunk while moored at Marsden Wharf. One crew member, Fernando Pereira, had been killed. Navy divers who retrieved his body at 4am discovered that the blast came from outside the hull of the ship and a murder enquiry was launched by New Zealand police.

Police investigation

The police had a lucky break. On the evening of 10 July, two members of the Auckland Outboard Boating Club were watching out for people stealing boating equipment. At around 9.30pm, they saw a man in a wetsuit dragging a zodiac ashore after going under the Ngatipi Bridge on Tamaki Drive. The man was picked up by a couple in a Newmans Toyota campervan. One of the men took down the van's registration number and gave it to the police.

July 1985.  Auckland Harbour, New Zealand.Gaping hole inside of the Rainbow Warrior following bombing by the French secret service agents.COPYRIGHT 2005 GREENPEACE INTERNATIONAL
Gaping hole in the Rainbow Warrior after the 1985 bombing

After the bombing, the police were able to follow this lead, and when the couple went to return the van to the Newmans depot in Mt Wellington two days later, the staff delayed them long enough for the police to arrive. The couple were travelling on fake Swiss passports and would eventually be unmasked as French agents Alain Mafart and Dominique Prieur.

French involvement

The French government initially denied any involvement in the bombing. Alain Mafart and Dominique Prieur continued to pretend that they were a Swiss couple on honeymoon. Over the following weeks, their story unravelled as their passports were shown to be forgeries. The police gradually uncovered evidence that would show a highly organised operation involving more than ten French agents. For two months the French government continued to deny any involvement.

Under pressure, the French government launched an inquiry to find out if French agents were responsible for the attack. This Tricot Inquiry would state that the agents in New Zealand were only spying on Greenpeace and did not sink the ship. The scandal intensified as the French media published further allegations about French involvement. The French Defence Minister, Charles Hernu, was forced to resign and the head of the French secret service (the DGSE), Pierre Lacoste, was sacked. On 22 September 1985, the French Prime Minister, Laurent Fabius, gave a televised address in which he revealed that French agents bombed the Rainbow Warrior and that they acted on orders.

From the Greenpeace archives: the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior

The New Zealand public was outraged that France could carry out such an attack on New Zealand territory. Thousands of New Zealand men had died fighting to defend France during World War I and II and many were angry this was how a former ally was treated. Many New Zealanders were already angry about how France was continuing to test nuclear weapons at Mururoa Atoll. These tests were seen as a threat to the environment and the people of the South Pacific. People argued that if (as the French claimed) the tests were safe, they should be carried out in France.

Greenpeace gained huge sympathy over the bombing, and donations poured in. The fact that New Zealand’s traditional allies, the United Kingdom and the United States, did not condemn France’s actions caused further bitterness. Following this, the New Zealand government pursued a more independent stance in world affairs. In 1987, New Zealand passed the Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act. The bombing cemented nuclear free policies as part of New Zealand's identity.

The Rainbow Warrior after the bombing After the bombing

The two French agents were found guilty of manslaughter. The New Zealand judge sentenced them each to ten years’ imprisonment on 22 November 1985. The French government wanted its agents returned to France.

In January 1986, New Zealand farm produce exports began to face obstacles in the French markets. The New Zealand government feared that if its exports to the European Community were blocked, the New Zealand economy would be severely damaged. This situation led the two governments to come to an agreement with the help of the United Nations. The agreement, reached on July 1986, led to a French apology, compensation fee and an agreement not to interfere with New Zealand exports to Europe. In return, the agents would serve three years on Hao Atoll in French Polynesia. Many New Zealanders did not like this deal and the nation was outraged when France broke the agreement and brought the two agents back to France within two years.

The sinking of the Rainbow Warrior failed to stop the protests at Mururoa Atoll. Greenpeace gained a huge amount of sympathy in New Zealand and around the world following the bombing, and if anything it had the opposite effect to what the French wanted. Fernando Pereira’s death made many protesters more determined to go and protest at Mururoa. Donations and offers of help continued to flood in. Greenpeace International was able to send its other large ship, The Greenpeace, to lead the protest at Mururoa Atoll.

The Rainbow Warrior’s Peter Wilcox and Grace O’Sullivan boarded the Greenpeace yacht Vega and sailed to Mururoa to protest. They were arrested and deported. Bunny McDiarmid joined The Greenpeace and Lloyd Anderson joined the crew of the yacht Varangian.

The international attention gained from the bombing raised a much deeper awareness around the issue of nuclear testing amongst governments and people around the world. Indeed, the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior and the resulting international outrage would play a part in the decision by France to end nuclear testing on Mururoa Atoll in 1996.

Arbitration settlement

On 2 October 1987, an international arbitration tribunal sitting in Geneva, Switzerland ordered France to pay Greenpeace US$8.1 million in damages for deliberately sinking the Rainbow Warrior. France agreed to the arbitration after Greenpeace threatened to take France to court in New Zealand. This arbitration settlement was a very significant victory for Greenpeace, as it recognised the organisation’s rights under international law. According to their lawyer, Gary Born, the arbitration showed that “the law was not just something that protected smaller states, it also protected individuals and legal entities like Greenpeace”.

Greenpeace then had the funds to replace the Rainbow Warrior with the ship Rainbow Warrior 2, which would continue the campaign to protect the environment and raise awareness of critical environmental issues around the globe.

Rainbow Warrior Memorial New Zealand The Rainbow Warrior memorial at Matauri Bay

The Rainbow Warrior was towed north and scuttled at Matauri Bay. A memorial sculpture overlooks the water. Recreational divers are now able to admire the marine life surrounding the ship, that was used to protect the very creatures that now surround it. Click here for an interactive dive down to the wreck.