In New Zealand, Our Side Winning: Here's Owen Wilkes

When New Zealand's most prominent peace researcher came to Canada on a lecture tour this fall, he nearly didn't get an entry permit. In Sweden they called him a spy. But in New Zealand, peaceniks run toward boldness. We interviewed him in Halifax, after he'd finished his tour.

By Gillian Thomas (interviewer)

CANDIS: One of the things that we in Canada find impressive and enviable is the present situation in New Zealand and especially the banning of U.S. nuclear vessels from New Zealand ports. Could you sketch how that came about?

WILKES: The big advantage we have in New Zealand is that of being a small country in a relatively isolated part of the world, so it's much easier to concentrate on one issue year after year after year until eventually you win. We're not constantly getting overwhelmed by new issues like you are in a big lively place like Canada.

Initially it was protest against the French nuclear testing in the Pacific and that really got underway in 1972 when Greenpeace from Vancouver, which at that time was an organization we'd never heard of, was looking for a boat to use to go to Mururoa to the French nuclear testing site. New Zealanders thought that this was a good idea and from 1972 to 1974 we organized peace fleets of small boats to sail all the way to Mururoa. Those protests were successful in that they forced French nuclear testing underground from 1976 onwards.

The anti-nuclear movement as a whole was revived in 1976 because the New Zealand government of the time started inviting U.S. nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed warships into our ports. Up until 1976 those nuclear ships hadn't been let in because there was no financial provision in case of an accident. But then the U.S. made that provision, and in any case the Conservative government was quite keen on the idea. Based on the peace fleet experience of '72-'74, we organized much larger flotillas of boats, peace squadrons, to blockade the harbors when nuclear warships came in.

CANDIS: So you were involved in civil disobedience?

WILKES: No. We were avoiding civil disobedience. We studied maritime law very closely and found that when one vessel overtakes another, the vessel being overtaken has to give way. So theoretically, if you overtake a nuclear warship, even if you're travelling quite slowly, they are supposed to get out of your way. In fact, doing this, most people managed to avoid arrest. After about the third ship came in, it became impossible to stop them. It was too heavily policed. But it turned out that it didn't matter anyway, because we got just as much publicity by being there in the harbor, and it turned into a good-humored regatta, with about forty protest boats and an equal number of police boats. That was great from our point of view, because from a distance you couldn't tell which was which and the size of the demonstration looked twice what it actually was.

The other thing that happened was that about 1980 or 1981, a campaign started up to make New Zealand nuclear-free, bit by bit, by having municipalities declare themselves nuclear-free. That turned out to be more successful than anyone had envisaged. They set themselves the goal of having 50 percent of New Zealanders living in nuclear-free zones by 1983. They passed that goal and by the time the election was called in 1984, 64 percent of New Zealanders were living in municipalities that had declared themselves nuclear-free zones. So by that time it was obvious to even the most superficial observer that the majority of New Zealanders had become opposed to nuclear weapons. And then the election itself was largely fought on the nuclear issue. In fact, the reason that 1984 election was called is very interesting. A Labour M.P. had introduced a private member's bill to declare New Zealand nuclear free and Marilyn Waring, a member of the National Party (the conservative party) announced that she was going to cross the floor of the House to vote with Labour. The government only had a majority of one at the time, so that would have made the bill law. So rather than have New Zealand become nuclear-free, the Conservative Prime Minister, "Piggy" Muldoon, dissolved Parliament halfway through the debate and then we had a three week election campaign. The nuclear issue was quite prominent throughout, and so on July 14th, I think it was, we all woke up in a nuclear-free zone. It was quite a strange feeling--you know, you woke up and lay there for a while, unable to believe it.

CANDIS: Could you tell us about the peace movement organization in New Zealand?

WILKES: The organizational structure is very fluid, in that organizations rise and fall quite easily, but we do have one or two that are more or less permanent, like the Auckland CND. But the peace squadron organization was extremely fluid, with various different people being prominent at different times.

CANDIS: Is there a distinctive women's peace movement in New Zealand, as there is, for instance, in Britain?

WILKES: I probably shouldn't be speaking on this, but the women's movement has been important in the last few years--in Auckland in 1983, they had a march of 20,000 women. They've taken on some causes of their own. For instance, we have an electronic spying facility in New Zealand and that's been a focus for short Greenham Common type actions. The women's movement has also made much more effort to work with the indigenous peoples. Also, some organizations--although they're not identified as being women's organizations--are largely run by women. Greenpeace is one, for example, where the whole office is woman-operated.

The women were also very effective in an action they did around the "Dial-a-Sailor" set-up that was organized for the crews of visiting warships. The women's movement wrecked that scheme completely by organizing what they called "Dial-a-Dick." Quite large numbers of women were ringing up the ship all day and inviting these sailors home, but the home addresses they gave were the homes of Cabinet Ministers! So they never tried "Dial-a-Sailor" again.

CANDIS: When you were working for the Stockholm Peace Research Institute, you found yourself on espionage charges.Will you explain that?

WILKES: Actually, there are two stories. In Oslo I was working on a government-sponsored research project describing the military infrastructure in Norway and I discovered that there was a totally secret network of electronic spy bases in Norway being operated for the U.S. This was despite the fact that ostensibly Norway has a policy of not allowing foreign bases in the country. This network was so secret that not even the parliamentary defence committee knew about it. Yet it wasn't really secret, because the stations were listed in the ordinary telephone book and were all visible from public highways. We wrote a report on it and we were prossecuted and convicted. The basis of the prosecution was that we'd collected lots of open information and put it together and that this was illegal.

In Sweden, I thought I had all this figured out, but one weekend the security police raided my office and they found some notes about Swedish radars. As it happened I was in Finland on the weekend, and of course all readers of spy novels know that spies go to neutral countries in order to meet their Soviet handlers. So they arrested me on the Monday morning when I came back from Finland and on Tuesday afternoon the prosecutor told the news media that he's seized another Russian spy. Then on Friday morning they had to let me go because there was no evidence for it. But I was subsequently convicted for dealing in secret information because of the fact that I'd looked at radars from a public highway and all military installations are secret by definition.

CANDIS: You've written about the role of radar installations in the arms race, but I think that in general the peace movement isn't so much concerned with intelligence gathering and monitoring as much as with weapons systems. Should we be more concerned about them than we are?

WILKES: In some ways I think radar should be seen as more important than the weapons themselves. For a nuclear war you've got to have all these command and control installations and they've got to be in place years before they're needed and they're very big and take a long time to construct. Whereas you can practically fly in nuclear weapons an hour before you need them. So in that sense all the command and control stuff is more important. Granted that it's not so spectacular as a target for protest, but in real terms it's just as important as the actual nuclear weapons. That's why I think the people of Newfoundland ought to be looking harder at the U.S., naval facility at Argentia which in effect functions as a trigger for nuclear weapons on submarines, because it's tracking Russian submarines in the North Atlantic.

CANDIS: Most people would argue, I think, that we want to know where the Russian submarines are.

WILKES: And I would quite agree with that, but the point is that we all have a right to that information. We do want to know what the Russians are doing, but that information should be public. In fact, of course, I suspect that most of the time the information would be that the Russians are not there, even though propaganda is constantly telling us they are there. The important thing is that bases like Argentia should not be directly connected up to command centres in the U.S. where it's used to target nuclear weapons. What's happening is that information is being collected on Canadian soil, being sent directly to tthe U.S. and once it gets there, Canada has absolutely no control over how the information is used. For example, it could be used to fight a war to which Canada's opposed.

CANDIS: How would you interpret the updating of the DEW line as the new North Warning system?

WILKES: Oh, it's partly the military just looking for another way of spending money. It's quite obviously related to the Star Wars program, not in the sense of itself being part of Star Wars, but related to the likely Soviet buildup of bombers and cruise missiles that would be their response to Star Wars. I've written a Ploughshares paper on this which argues that installations of this kind should be nationalized by the countries which host them and then operated openly by civilians. They could then serve as an early warning system about any kind of buildup by either side, rather than just the Russians. I think the world being the way it is, they probably are needed, but they could easily be operated in such a way as to lower tensions rather than raise them. They could also be operated in such a way that it would not be in the interests of either the U.S. or the Soviets to target them. But at the present time, it's obviously very much in Soviet interests to destroy them.

CANDIS: Can we ask you the question we're always asked when we talk to the politicans or to the media about peace. What about the Russians?

WILKES: I'd be worried about the Russian threat if I were living in Poland or Afghanistan, but living in New Zealand or Canada, it's not a very realistic worry. I think it's obvious that the Soviet Union intends to maintain friendly or subject regimes in countries that are alongside it as buffer states, but I don't see any evidence of long range plans for conquest. I think they are the last people we have to worry about. There are certain things I'm very critical of the Soviet Union for--for example, their missile testing in the Pacific Ocean. That's something we're trying to stop. However, I think there's abundant evidence that the Soviet Pacific fleet is essentially a coastal defence fleet, and very much smaller than the U.S. fleet. If you go to U.S. government sources and look at the real information which is prepared for decision makers, as opposed to the propaganda that's prepared for the public, you can amply document that there is no threat from the Soviet Union.

CANDIS: Is there any one particular point you have tried to get across to Canadians during this speaking tour of the country that you've now completed?

WILKES: One of the things that we in the Pacific are really demanding of Canada is that Canada withdraw from the RIMPAC exercise. That's an exercise in which the U.S. and Canadian navies carry out a naval bombardment of the island of Kaho'olawe. That island is sacred to the native Hawaiians, which is actually why it's unoccupied. It's also important to realize that it's clearly an offensive exercise because, after all, you don't protect your own coastline by bombing it. It would be a fine demonstration of Canadian solidarity with the movement to denuclearize the Pacific.

Peace Magazine Feb-Mar 1986

Peace Magazine Feb-Mar 1986, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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