You will be assimilated
21 December 2014 22:35 (South Africa)
Opinionista Sarah Burton

What Kumi Naidoo did was not heroic, it was simply right

  • Sarah Burton
South African head of Greenpeace Kumi Naidoo’s scaling of an Arctic oilrig was exactly the kind of “civil disobedience” for which Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela have become icons.

Ivo Vegter is no doubt a fine polemicist. We even agree with the headline to his column, ‘Kumi Naidoo is no hero’, referring to the arrest of our international executive director for climbing on an oil rig off the coast of Greenland to protest against drilling for oil in the Arctic.

We believe that any decent man or woman, offered the opportunity to take a stand for justice, would take it by climbing on an oil rig, sitting in an otherwise reserved section of a bus, carrying a banner, or even forsaking food and water for a determined period.

The two Greenpeace activists, Kumi Naidoo and Ulvar Arnkvaern were not trying to be heroes, they were simply doing the right thing.

Greenpeace campaigns are not aimed at creating heroes, but are about “bearing witness” to environmental and social injustice. That is what Kumi and Ulvar did in the Arctic.

What we don’t agree with – and this is by far more important than any question about hero status – is Vegter’s condemnation of our wider philosophy of nonviolent “direct action”. Civil disobedience (another term for nonviolent direct action) helped bring an end to apartheid in South Africa, it helped bring down the Berlin Wall and most recently it led to seismic political changes in the Arab world. Would the people of Tunisia and Egypt have rid themselves of their respective dictatorial regimes had they been cowed into blindly accepting the rule of law?

Incidentally, some of the dictatorial regimes in the Arab region where supported by the same countries who say they care about the rule of law and human rights; those very same countries are leading the rush to Arctic to further their own interests irrespective of the consequences to the rest of the world. This is environmental crime as far as we are concerned.

The list of examples where civil disobedience improved the lot of humankind is long, and I'm sure Vegter is familiar with it. In all of these cases, people of conscience -- from Mahatma Gandhi to Nelson Mandela, and from Rosa Parks to Aung San Suu Kyi -- broke the law; those laws either actively defended injustice, or intimidated people from being able to stand up against injustice.

So what exactly is it that Vegter is so peeved about? In his column he commends Kumi’s passion while at the same time highlighting it as “characteristic of activists on the extreme fringe”. Surely he understands that most important struggles start out on the “extreme fringe” before moving toward the mainstream. The women arrested in Saudi Arabia last month because they dared to drive are considered “fringe” in their country – surely  Vegter doesn’t mean to condemn them as well.

Mahatma Gandhi once said: First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you and then you win. Essentially movements for justice against slavery, apartheid, civil rights in the US, gay and lesbian rights, gender equality and so on all started out as what Vegter calls the "fringe".

Yet, given that US secretary of state Hillary Clinton was recently in Greenland to talk about the future of the Arctic, and that just about every major head of state has chimed in on the issue, we would also suggest this has moved beyond the status of fringe and is now a mainstream issue.

When Kumi went up onto the rig, it was to do what he could to get a multinational corporation to take notice of the opinions of tens of thousands of people globally. It was to make the company take note of Greenpeace’s countless bids to discuss its oil exploration plans, and, more pertinently, it’s mopping up plans should anything go awry.

More than 50,000 people emailed the oil giant asking the same thing, and those were the signatures Naidoo was carrying, the voices he was representing. Since Kumi and Ulvar Arnkvaern climbed the rig, a further 30,000 people have added their voices to this call.

So far, Cairn Energy has chosen to ignore the whole lot, despite the very real danger of oil spills in one of the world’s last pristine environments. Yet it was the meeting in the Arctic (as opposed to the times we tried to approach the company at its headquarters or online) that finally caught the attention of the world’s press, who are in turn now helping educate the world about this important issue.

If it were enough for us to write a newspaper opinion piece asking oil companies not to drill in the Arctic, believe us we would do it that way. Unfortunately, that was not the case.

Finally Vegter writes, “I want a world with affordable energy, in which people are free to produce and trade to increase their prosperity, and live without fear of vandalism and coercion.” The irony is that this is exactly what Kumi was fighting for when he climbed that rig!

We at Greenpeace want a world with affordable energy, but we also want that energy to be safe. We know this is possible because we have seen the studies done by scientists (and reported by the UN’s own IPCC) that show how renewable sources of energy, such as sun and wind, can meet a great part of our energy needs. The key will be to end subsidies to the fossil fuel (and nuclear) industries so that renewable energy sources become equally affordable.

The worst thing Vegter, or anyone else, can accuse Greenpeace of, is irritating corporations or governments who have something to hide. And as long as there is environmental injustice in the world, we will continue to do so. After all, history has shown us in South Africa and elsewhere,  that it is only when brave men and women are ready to say “enough is enough and no more”, that positive change can happen.

To our minds the worst thing we could do – second only to causing harm or destruction – would be to show complacency in the face of danger or injustice. DM


Sarah Burton is the Deputy Programme Director for Greenpeace International.

  • Sarah Burton
GP01WOK

Sarah Burton has been the Deputy Programme Director for Greenpeace International since March 2009. Sarah is an experienced Human Rights Lawyer and her first role at Greenpeace was as the UK office’s in-house lawyer. She later became Greenpeace UK’s Campaign Director where she was responsible for high level lobbying and advocacy with Government officials, Ministers and international business leaders. Before her current position Sarah was the Campaign Programme Director of Amnesty International and directed global campaigns, including against gender based violence, promotion of arms control and its Counter Terror with Justice Campaign.


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