Rainbow Warrior Case (international law)
The Rainbow Warrior Case was a dispute between New Zealand and France that arose in the aftermath of the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior. It was arbitrated by UN Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar in 1986, and became significant in the subject of Public International Law for its implications on State responsibility.
On 10 July 1985 an undercover operation conducted by the French military security service (DGSE) sank the Dutch-registered Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior berthed in Auckland Harbour. The Greenpeace ship was planning to disrupt French Nuclear tests on the islands of French Polynesia. New Zealand subsequently caught and convicted two members of the French secret forces.
After a series of diplomatic confrontations between France and New Zealand pertaining primarily to issues of compensation and the treatment of the apprehended agents, both governments decided to have their differences arbitrated by a tribunal chaired by then Secretary-General of the UN, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar. His binding ruling was pronounced on 6 July 1986.
Even though the actions of the French state were not a threat to "international peace and security" as held by the UN Charter due to their limited objectives and impact, they were widely held to be acts of international delinquency comprising breach of sovereignty and espionage (though peace time espionage is not covered by international law). The French memorandum to the secretary general argued that Greenpeace was engaging in "hostile actions" and "illegal penetration" of French territory around the test site and New Zealand acted as a platform for those actions. These arguments were rejected as not fulfilling any of the criteria of international law pertaining to the use of force.
In such cases where a state sends its agents abroad to commit acts which are illegal under international or municipal law of the target country, it is customary for the state to take responsibility for the act and issue compensation. However its agents are usually granted immunity from local courts. In this case however, New Zealand managed to call out the French state under international law and try its agents under its own municipal law. See also the Caroline affair on the responsibility of states vs the responsibility of their agents.
France, having admitted responsibility, focused its efforts on the repatriation of its servicemen. This was agreed to by New Zealand on the condition that they would serve out the rest of their sentences. A compromise was reached by the mediation of the UN secretary general to three-year sentences on the French atoll of Hao (at a French naval base). France ultimately returned both agents to mainland France and freed them by May 1988, after less than two years on the atoll.
In terms of reparations, France initially offered an official apology and acknowledgement of breach of international law. Additionally, the UN secretary-general awarded New Zealand 7 million USD. This is in addition to compensation which France paid to the family of the only victim of the mission and to Greenpeace (settled privately).
The Rainbow Warrior case bolsters the notion that there is a doctrine of non-intervention in international law and that states will be punished for contravening it. It is also an interesting study of state responsibility, individual responsibility, use of force and reparations. Its consideration for international law is slightly hampered by the fact that it was decided by a single individual (the UN secretary general) as a special Tribunal not internationally established. This is because there existed jurisdictional obstacles for an application to the ICJ by New Zealand, most importantly of which was that France did not (and still does not) recognise the jurisdiction of the Court as compulsory.
- Michael Pugh: "Legal Aspects of the Rainbow Warrior Affair", The International and Comparative Law Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 3. (Jul., 1987), pp. 655–669,
- Rainbow Warrior (NEW ZEALAND v. FRANCE) France-New Zealand Arbitration Tribunal. 30 April 1990
- "Declarations Recognizing the Jurisdiction of the Court as Compulsory". Retrieved 14 March 2011.