Greenpeace’s Arctic 30 act on idea of a community of nations

Russian forces detained all those aboard Greenpeace’s Arctic Sunrise after activists tried to hang a banner from an oil platform. EPA/Igor Podgorny/Greenpeace

Should the Australian government require Colin Russell to repay at least some of its costs for acting on his behalf when the Russians imprisoned him and 29 other Greenpeace activists and journalists, known as the “Arctic 30”? Foreign minister Julie Bishop said the costs ran into thousands of dollars and questioned why taxpayers should foot the bill.

Russell was a radio operator on the Arctic Sunrise, a Greenpeace ship that launched a rubber dinghy from which activists attempted to scale a Russian oil platform. This was in Russia’s exclusive economic zone but not in its territorial waters. The activists hoped to hang a banner on it. Water cannon and warning gunshots forced them to retreat.

The following day members of the Russian coastguard, wearing balaclavas and carrying automatic weapons, boarded the ship and forcibly took all on board to Russia. The activists were eventually charged with piracy.

When even Russian president Vladimir Putin thought that to be absurd, they were charged with hooliganism, which carries a potential seven-year penalty. After three months’ imprisonment in harsh conditions, the Arctic 30 were granted amnesty and released. Presumably, the interventions of foreign governments had some effect and the brutish treatment of the activists and ruthless absurdity of the charges embarrassed even the hooligan Russian government.

Russell claims that the Australian government did not do enough to free him. Bishop said the help given to him was more “than is often provided”. She added disdainfully that the activists wanted a response from the Russian government and they got one.

Many Australians would agree with the content and tone of her remarks. The claims by Russell and Bishop are not necessarily at odds. The government’s behaviour was consistent with its obligations to its citizens and with its contempt for Greenpeace.

For some years now Greenpeace appears to have decided that the consequences of climate change will soon be so terrible and the resolve of nations to ameliorate – let alone avert – them so weak, that direct, non-violent but sometimes illegal action is necessary.

It is therefore understandable that Greenpeace and its defenders often appeal to the concept of civil disobedience to justify such action. Despair about ordinary political processes motivated, and was often offered as justification for, civil disobedience of the 1960s and 1970s.

In the early 1960s, in Australia and elsewhere, there was considerable hostility to civil disobedience. Opponents claimed that it undermined the rule of law and democracy, which should be governed by persuasion rather than by demonstrations and sit-ins.

By 1971, when about 200,000 people marched in the second of three moratoria to oppose conscription and Australian involvement in the war in Vietnam, that changed. Most Australians were then prepared to entertain, even if they did not fully accept, the idea that civil disobedience had a fundamental role to play in democratic politics.

The Vietnam War protests cemented a place for civil disobedience in democratic politics. ABC Archives

They also accepted that those who engaged in civil disobedience could show their respect for the political community whose laws they had broken by submitting to those laws and consenting to penalties they imposed.

The belief that any serious conception of a community of citizens required one to accept the legal consequences of civil disobedience against the laws of a legitimate, democratically elected government was dubbed the “classical” perspective on civil disobedience. Those who defended it often considered themselves heirs to a tradition that runs from Socrates through Gandhi to Martin Luther King.

The classical position tried to harmonise the imperatives of conscience, the political obligation to direct action and the obligations of citizenship. The attempt to do this came up, on the one hand, against conservative opposition to any form of direct action and against radicals who claimed that conscience sometimes required one to support the enemy, even against a democratically elected government.

On the other hand, it forced on many people an appreciation of just how complex are the relations between morality, law and politics. It encouraged some people to believe that these distinctive realms of value cannot always be reconciled, even if they are always answerable to one another.

The heated controversy of those times of civil disobedience both expressed and forged a sense of the dignity of the political realm, which has since largely deserted us. The expressions “the dignity of politics” and “the morality of politics” now strike many people as oxymorons.

By the 1970s, to suggest that if it were practicable, governments should charge groups that organised the moratoria the high costs incurred by the taxpayer would have betrayed political illiteracy. The reason is not that the responsibilities owed by and to taxpayers do not matter. Rather, it is that such a suggestion implies that their responsibilities to their fellow citizens are essentially to them as taxpayers.

It would also have been taken as a sign of political illiteracy, or of an abdication from the political realm, to defend civil disobedience solely by appeal to the imperatives of conscience. Without doubt the sober claim that this or that is a matter of conscience places an obligation on those to whom it is addressed to take it seriously. But, in the political arena, it is made not only to one’s fellow human beings to whose moral sense one appeals, but to them as fellow citizens.

Those who make an appeal to conscience should therefore acknowledge that they must try, together with those who oppose them, to determine the place of that claim in a serious concept of democratic citizenship.

If I tell my wife that conscience requires me to be a conscientious objector and ask her to accept the consequences for our family, then one set of considerations comes into play. If I ask my fellow citizens to accept the consequences for the political community, then another set comes into play. They overlap in important ways, but at times they come apart.

Discussion of the classical perspective and of dissent from it assumed that at issue was the role of conscientious, politically motivated disobedience to the laws of a democratic nation state. But as I understand it, though Russia was the direct target of Greenpeace, its primary aim was to address the international community, not in order to secure support against Russia, but in order to generate discussion that would deepen understanding what it means for the nations of the earth to constitute a community.

If that is true, then defence of those actions by appeal to the concept of civil disobedience is problematic. This is because, to the extent that it exists, the community of nations is not a civitas. It is not the kind of political constituency in which the concept of “civil” as it is used in the expression “civil disobedience” gets much purchase.

Greenpeace cannot argue to the Russians, or to any of the nations to which its activists belong, that its actions were justified because of the role they play in a democratic polity. Those who took part in acts of civil disobedience could not high-mindedly disregard their fellow citizens who opposed them. They had to engage them in political dialogue about the place of unlawful action in a democratic polity.

Similarly, Greenpeace and like-minded activists must engage the leaders and citizens of the nations of the world in a discussion about the place of direct, non-violent, but sometimes unlawful action in the community of nations.

The idea of a community of nations is rather thin, but it is not empty. Its core is that some acts are so morally terrible that their occurrence and prevention should concern the citizens of all nations.

Torture, genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity are obvious examples. The concept of a crime against humanity, for example, expresses the belief that those who commit this crime offend against the moral constitution of humanity itself. This is considered not only a constituency of human beings, but of citizens of the plurality of nations that comprise the community of nations.

The ideal of a community of nations expresses, in part, the hope that the leaders and citizens of all nations will freely render themselves answerable to international criminal law.

Russell said that he did not regret his actions because they were partly for the sake of his children and grandchildren. A concern for the well-being – including the moral well-being – of children and grandchildren is one that all the peoples of the earth readily appreciate. Together with our mortality, our sexuality and our vulnerability to suffering, it defines our sense of the human condition.

Australian activist Colin Russell said he acted for the sake of his children and grandchildren, a concern that speaks to our sense of a common humanity. EPA/Dmitri Sharomov/Greenpeace

We have in mind the significance to all people of such big facts of human life when we express a sense of a common humanity by saying that all human beings are at bottom the same whatever their colour or nationality.

When such concerns enter the political realm, they are transformed from private ones into the common concerns of citizens. When they enter international law, they give content to, indeed are partly constitutive of, a sense of the community of nations: they are the principal elements in an elaboration of what such an idea comes to. The sense of a common humanity is a condition for any idea of a community of nations that is more than notional.

Scientific consensus on climate change is now such that one must accept that it is reasonable to believe – even if one does not oneself believe – that the effects of climate change will very soon be ruinous for life on earth and will create political instability and upheavals. The risks are greatest in poorer nations, which are victims of circumstances caused in large part by wealthy nations. Almost certainly such upheavals will be the occasion for an increase in war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The wealthy, mostly Western democratic, nations will be driven to authoritarian measures to deal with the dramatic effects of climate change as they become rationally incontestable, but are nonetheless downplayed by those who have interests in doing so.

At a certain point, refusal to take action that might seriously ameliorate the misery that climate change will bring to humankind will be seen morally, if not in law, as an offence against the political realisation amongst the peoples of the earth that they share a common humanity and the obligations consequent upon that fact.

If that is true, direct action whose purpose is to reduce the terrible effects of climate change must be distinguished from direct action whose purpose is to prevent whaling or further damage to the Great Barrier Reef.

The brave men and women who sail on the Greenpeace ship do so in the probably doomed hope of preventing environmental catastrophe that will destroy the sense of common humanity. They deserve better than the disdainful suggestions that they are morally self-indulgent burdens on the taxpayer.