Greenpeace admits gross error

Rainbow Warrior on shipbreaking beach in Bangladesh

On November 15, Greenpeace International posted a remarkable announcement on its website. “We have made a mistake, one that we have tried to correct”, the announcement opens. The mistake is not a minor calculation error or a hasty social media campaign, but: “We have allowed the Rongdhonu, formerly the Rainbow Warrior (II), to be scrapped on a beaching yard in Bangladesh, in a way that does not live up to the standards we set ourselves and campaigned with our allies to have adopted across the world.”

Greenpeace was, indeed, together with the NGO Shipbreaking Platform, one of the first organizations to campaign against beaching for shipbreaking. How, then, is it possible that its own iconic Rainbow Warrior II (the first ship with that name was sunk by the French secret services in a terrorist attack in 1985 because of Greenpeace’s campaign against the French nuclear tests in Polynesia) ends up on a shipbreaking beach?

Mistake, with a capital M

The story actually begins in 2011, when Greenpeace determined that the Rainbow Warrior II was deemed no longer fit to sail the high seas, and the ship was donated to Friendship, a medical NGO from Bangladesh. Friendship rebaptised the boat Rongdhonu — Rainbow in Bengali — and used it to serve the climate impacted population of the coastal belt of the Bay of Bengal. It has, since then, served over 150.000 people, children and women which otherwise would have had no access to health care, and about 5400 surgeries were performed on board.

This year, Friendship came to the decision to phase out the 61-year old ship, due to the fact that the level of requirements of the authorities in Bangladesh have become such that a more than 60 year old ship would not have its navigation permits renewed. In the agreement signed by Greenpeace with Friendship, there was a clause giving Greenpeace International a veto on proposals for the demolition of the ship, when it would be taken out of service. When Friendship suggested that the ship be scrapped at PHP shipbreaking yard in Chittagong, Bangladesh, GPI could have said no. But it did not.

‘The error was due to the fact that the decision was taken “without consulting either its own expertise or allies within the NGO Shipbreaking Platform or Basel Action Network”.

The operational service of Greenpeace International was convinced that the Rongdhonu could no longer make a big trip to a shipbreaking yard that would meet its own standards and requirements. That was the mistake, the organization now admits. Greenpeace Norway is a bit more outspoken than the international umbrella, and states that the decision to send the ship to a beach shipyard was “the result of a major internal error”.  According to the Norwegian section, the error was due to the fact that the decision was taken “without consulting either its own expertise or allies within the NGO Shipbreaking Platform or Basel Action Network”.

Greenpeace International promises an internal investigation, and for the sake of clarity, adds that “Greenpeace does not believe that breaking ships apart on tidal beaches is green”. This clarification is not superfluous, as some players from the shipbreaking or shipping industry immediately tried to use the story to suggest that Greenpeace finally came around to recognize that shipbreaking on “improved beaches” would be a good and sustainable option. GMS, for example, congratulated “both Greenpeace and Friendship for actively participating in the green transformation of the ship recycling industry in Bangladesh”.

Peace, Happiness, Prosperity

The breaking of the Rongdhondu / Rainbow Warrior II on a Chittagong beach does not only threathen to cause environmental, but also reputational damage to Greenpeace. Reason enough for Greenpeace International to try to buy back the ship from the PHP yard, but apparently that effort is not succesful. Greenpeace International, for reasons of confidentiality in the talks, can not disclose how much the owner of PHP asked for the discarded vessel. Greenpeace Netherlands quotes a number of 10 million dollars, for a vessel that would be worth around 176,000 euros in steel value. What is clear, is that the gap between the real price and the price asked was far too large .

No small detail: PHP — in full Peace Happiness Prosperity — is the only shipbreaking yard in Chittagong that can present a Hong Kong Convention Certificate of Compliance, stating that the yard operates in accordance with the rules outlined in the Hong Kong Convention for Ship Recycling. It is not unlikely that this Certificate of Compliance has caused confusion, even on the level of the Greenpeace operational service. It certainly played a big role in the choice of Friendship to propose PHP as the scrapping yard fort he Rongdhonu, says executive director Runa Khan in a reaction to our questions: “PHP shipyard is the most environmentally friendly shipyard available in Bangladesh and in particular has all certifications regarding the fact that it meets the requirements of the Hong Kong Convention.”

The Hong Kong Convention applies low standards for shipbreaking, and is not even in force, even though it was already concluded in 2009

For the uninitiated, it is important to realize that the Hong Kong Convention applies low standards for shipbreaking, and is not even in force, even though it was already concluded in 2009, because there are still only six countries that have ratified it.

Moreover, the certificates that have to prove that a yard complies with the requirements of the HKC are issued by private companies, and are not controlled by any government or international institution as long as the convention has not entered into force. Baskut Tuncak, UN Special Rapporteur on harmful substances and toxic waste: “I thoroughly studied the management structure of one of the certification companies — ClassNK. This shows that such private companies do not operate independently at all and should rather be seen as extensions of the shipping industry. The question is therefore what the authority is of the certificates they issue or of such a company itself. ” The certificate for PHP was awarded by the Italian certification company Rina.

Missing shipbreaking policy

What the communication from Greenpeace does not clarify, is how it is possible that such a “mistake” could happen within an internationally operating environmental movement. Mike Townsley, communications manager at Greenpeace International, is brief and clear when we ask the question: “Because we did not have a clear shipbreaking policy.”

“We apparently counted on the collective memory of the shipbreaking campaigns and thought that would suffice to always opt for clean and responsible ship recycling. But it is clearly not enough.”

That in itself is difficult to explain for an organization that has been using a small fleet for fifty years to be able to carry out its actions — against nuclear tests, palm oil or other issues — on the high seas. “True”, Townsley reacts. “It is an institutional error. We apparently counted on the collective memory of the shipbreaking campaigns of ten years ago, and we seem to have thought that would suffice to always opt for clean and responsible ship recycling. But it is clearly not enough.”

And so Greenpeace International is currently working on a formal shipbreaking policy for its own ships, in consultation with Shipbreaking Platform. The latter organization has suspended Greenpeace from its membership following the clear breach with the Platform’s policy against beaching, and may propose at its next General Meeting that Greenpeace International will no longer be a member of the platform, for fear that the Rainbow Warrior error might cause confucion about the clear position SBP has always maintained. Townsley can not yet say when that policy will be finalized and operational, but he thinks “in months, rather than years”. “In any case, this policy must be operational before a next ship is taken out of service”, he adds.

Greenpeace asks for the waste

While it seems to be impossible to buy back the ship and give it a final destination that corresponds with its own principles, Greenpeace still tries to reach an agreement with PHP about everything that is harmful or toxic waste in the Rongdhonu. Greenpeace wants to export that waste to a country where there is suitable infrastructure to store or process it. The complete absence of the necessary infrastructure in Chittagong, both on the tidal mudflats and downstream, is one of the important points of criticism from NGOs such as Shipbreaking Platform and Basel Action Network on shipbreaking there. At this moment it is not yet certain whether an agreement with the PHP yard can be reached.

“Greenpeace now has to prove that it is serious about its commitment to continue to fully and publicly support our “off the beach” campaign”

Martin Besieux, a Belgian who worked for more than thirty years at Greenpeace and, since retirement, is part of the board of Shipbreaking Platform, reacts disappointed bur firm to the whole story: “Greenpeace now has to prove that it is serious about its commitment to continue to fully and publicly support our “off the beach” campaign. The shipping industry can no longer escape the most logical and effective scrapping rules that apply to virtually all other industrial sectors.”

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