Remembering the Rainbow Warrior

The 1980s were a turbulent time in New Zealand’s brief history. It was a decade that through a series of events defined us an independent nation and set us apart of the world stage. We became the nation that cared, that was prepared to stand up for what we passionately believed in, and not bow to political pressures from the UK or USA.

By 1985, New Zealand had already ruffled a few feathers on the international stage by being involved with anti-apartheid controversy over the Springbok Rugby Tour, the banning of nuclear equipped ships from New Zealand and the breakdown of the ANZUS military alliance. However, 25 years later, much of the details of these events have been forgotten, except for one event on the night of July 10 1985 where, for the first and only time in New Zealand history, an act of international terrorism occurred in Auckland.

The bombing of the Greenpeace vessel the Rainbow Warrior by French Secret Service Agents while moored at Marsden Wharf is one event that still stirs up passionate emotion in many New Zealanders. At the time, the event was described by Prime Minister David Lange “a sordid act of international state-backed terrorism”.

Since the 1960s, France had been controversially testing Nuclear weapons at Moruroa Atoll in French Polynesia (2,800 nautical miles from Auckland). In the early 1980s the French began testing a new nuclear warhead designed for use in submarines (M4 SLBM). This act increased tensions between the French and the protestors and resulted in increased protests in the atoll area including Greenpeace regularly positioning ships inside the testing zone. A number of Greenpeace ships were boarded, crew arrested and, in some cases, beaten by the French military.

To strike a major blow to the protests the French Government secretly decided to blow up the Rainbow Warrior while resupplying in Auckland. Initially the French Secret Service managed to plant a spy under the alias of Frederique Bonlieu to work as a volunteer for Greenpeace in Auckland; where she passed information on the Rainbow Warrior back to the French Secret Service. In July 1985 eleven French secret service agents entered New Zealand, bringing with them explosives to bomb the Rainbow Warrior onboard the yacht Ouvéa that sailed from New Caledonia.

During the evening of July 10 1985 two of these agents, Alain Mafart and Dominique Prieur, placed two explosives on the hull of the Rainbow Warrior deliberately below the waterline to inflict as much damage as possible to the ship. The two bombs exploded just before midnight killing one crew member, Fernando Pereira, and sinking the ship in under 2 minutes. Nine of the French agents managed to escape and sail back to New Caledonia where they were met by a French submarine and the yacht deliberately sunk. However Mafart and Prieur were arrested by New Zealand Police at Auckland Airport trying to flee the country. Both were given 10 year jail terms however under immense trade and political pressure they were handed over to the French in return for $13 million in reparations and an official apology. Back in France both agents were released after less than two years.

The bombing of the Rainbow Warrior still has a major influence in New Zealand’s foreign policy today. No longer are we closer allied to any one state and any mention of changing New Zealand’s nuclear free stance is often met with harsh criticism. The French finally stopped all nuclear testing on 27 January 1996, after 210 nuclear tests. Moruroa Atoll still remains under French guard with permanent damage done to the below ground structure of it.

Something that I have never understood is why the French tested in the pacific. On one hand they claimed it was completely safe and on the other they stuck it on the other side of the world and not in their backyard.